Corbett Loses “Superstitious Nonsense” Trial

THIS is one we haven’t written about before. The San Jose Mercury News reports that: SoCal teacher violated First Amendment.

There’s a longer story on this in the Orange County Register, where we read High school teacher guilty of insulting Christians:

“Corbett states an unequivocal belief that Creationism is ‘superstitious nonsense,'” U.S. District Court Judge James Selna said in a 37-page ruling released from his Santa Ana courtroom. “The court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context.”

That 37-page ruling is a pdf file. We continue:

The establishment clause [of the First Amendment] prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion” and has been interpreted by U.S. courts to also prohibit government employees from displaying religious hostility.

That’s true. Here’s more:

We are thrilled with the judge’s ruling and feel it sets great precedent,” said Farnan’s attorney, Jennifer Monk, who works for the Christian legal group Advocates for Faith & Freedom in Murrieta. “Hopefully, teachers in the future, including Dr. Corbett, will think about what they’re saying and attempt to ensure they’re not violating the establishment clause as Dr. Corbett has done.”

Get this:

In an April 3 tentative ruling, however, Selna dismissed all but two of the statements as either not directly referring to religion or as being appropriate in the context of a class lecture, including the headline-grabbing “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”

That statement was one of many that got a pass from the judge. The judge’s opinion has a whole “Jesus Glasses” section, starting on page 16.

We blog about this stuff, and because we’re not the State there are no restraints on what we can say. Although some bloggers go way beyond what Corbett did, we see no need for it. Yet Corbett made his statements in class in a state-run school. We need to read the judge’s opinion in detail, but for the moment we find ourselves agreeing with this judge. Another excerpt:

Selna applied a three-pronged legal analysis known as the Lemon test to determine whether the establishment clause had been violated. The Lemon test, developed during a 1971 federal court case, asks whether a statement has a secular purpose, whether it advances or inhibits religion as its principal or primary effect, and whether it fosters an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.

Same precedent as was used in the Dover case.

We suspect we’ll be hearing more about Corbett’s trial. And we imagine that certain bloggers are going to take this one more personally than we do.

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10 responses to “Corbett Loses “Superstitious Nonsense” Trial

  1. That’s bizarre. I could see the “Jesus glasses” comment being out of line, not the creationism one.

  2. James says: “That’s bizarre. I could see the “Jesus glasses” comment being out of line, not the creationism one.”

    Well, that ol’ First Amendment cuts two ways:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …

    Still, I don’t see how any of Corbett’s gratuitous comments amount to prohibiting free exercise. There’s almost sure to be an appeal.

  3. Sometimes the only solution is to whip it out and pee on them. Looks like Corbett exposed himself for just a sweet second too long.

  4. longshadow

    There’s a distinction to be made here: the teacher trashed an idea that has its roots in religious dogma, but which attempts to explain scientific observations.

    That’s distinctly different than attacking someone’s religion directly, which arguably would be violative of the First amendment.

    The dangerous ground the court appears to be treading on is the idea that government teachers can’t criticize dumb theories if the theory has its root in theology.

    That’s not the same as criticizing someone’s religion.

  5. Tundra Boy, your master debating style is most impressive.

  6. I want the judge to describe why creationism can’t be taught in schools without saying something that amounts to ‘religious nonsense.’

    …also, I have to second surprise at Jesus-glasses getting the pass.

  7. James Corbett

    My Defense, Jim “Jesus Glasses” Corbett

    Over two thousand years ago Socrates faced a court for refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, importing strange divinities and corrupting the young. The judges sent Socrates to his death. He accepted the sentence of the court and committed suicide by drinking a cup of hemlock.

    The only virtue for Socrates was “knowledge.” He reached it by questioning the most deeply held beliefs of his students by which I mean all of Athens and ultimately all of us. What troubled the Athenians about Socrates, however, was not listed in the charges. His crime was that he prompted people to think.

    His provocations exposed the Athenians’ shallowness of belief and mindless deference to myth. Socrates was judged because he was successful in provoking his students “examine their lives.” [his words] Those who guard the myths must try and strike down any who teach young people to think and question, because myths often shrink in the light of reason, draining power from those in authority who benefit from belief.

    There are thousands of teachers who agree with Socrates that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Every teacher who makes a student think takes the risk that he will be attacked by parents and others who see themselves as guardians of cherished political and religious myth. The teachers willing to take that risk should be rewarded, not punished. After the verdict, the Athenian court asked Socrates what his punishment should be. He responded that he should get free meals at the Pyrataneum, a celebration hall for Olympian athletes. Socrates went on to explain that those who passed judgment were not harming him, but rather themselves. He said, by killing him they corrupted their own souls and revealed the weakness of their own belief. A true believer does not fear that a few questions can undo years of parental teaching. Those who would “protect” students from self examination have little faith and great fear.

    Chad Farnan, the boy who sued me, was an average student, who admitted under oath that he did not do the required reading for the class. If Chad’s lawyers, the “Advocates for Faith and Freedom” and his parents were actually concerned with protecting the boy, why didn’t they simply come to me and ask me to explain my comments? Neither they nor the Farnans ever expressed concerns to me nor to any administrators before they came to school with attorneys and reporters in tow to drop a lawsuit on the desk of Tom Ressler, our principal. Perhaps more importantly, the Farnans were aware long before Chad took my class that I go out of my way to be provocative. Every year in July, I send a letter home to students who have signed up for my class. Chad admitted under oath that he received that letter. The letter says, in part:

    Most days we will spend a few minutes (sometimes more) at the beginning of class discussing current events from either the Orange County Register or the L.A. Times. I may also use material from a variety of news websites. Discussion will be quite provocative, and focus on the “lessons” of history. My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents. Students may offer any perspective without concern that anything they say will impact either my attitude toward them or their grades. I encourage a full range of views. [Boldface in the original]

    I included my home phone number and e-mail address in that letter and encouraged parents to contact me if they had any concerns. Chad admitted under oath that my lectures prompted many discussions with his parents. I might add, that in 20 years in the CUSD, I have never had a complaint filed against me, save this one.

    Every teacher in California (this was a federal case after all) now works with the knowledge that any student, at any time, and in violation of California law, can sneak a tape recorder into a classroom, record the teacher and use an out-of-context five second comment as a bludgeon to threaten, to intimidate and, ultimately, to destroy the teacher’s career and good name.

    Challenging myths is dangerous, but it is the essence of getting students to think for themselves. The Athenian judges, like some parents today, would have students accept myth without question, because myth is the foundation of their parental, political and/or religious authority. Ms. Farnan objected to my challenging the myth of the Puritans as a pious people who fled religious intolerance to found America. As Ms. Farnan sees them, the Puritans are quaint pious people with buckles on their hats and shoes as portrayed in the national mythology, but they may also be seen as intolerant, misogynistic and homophobic religious bigots who hanged Mary Dyer, a Quaker girl, for preaching something other than Puritan doctrine and several other women for the crime of “witchcraft.” Questioning may make students and parents uncomfortable, but students have a right to think for themselves. It is not “bullying” to demand that students think. Ms. Farnan also objected to my challenge of another national myth, that the USA was founded as a “Christian” nation. There is some truth to that notion, but embracing that myth and excluding other views can be used to unfairly gain political advantage. Another view of the founding fathers can be seen in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, the man who authored the Declaration of Independence. He translated the Bible. The last words of the Jeffersonian Bible might shake Ms. Farnan’s faith: “There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” There was no resurrection for Jefferson, he rejected all the Biblical miracles, as contrary to reason. I doubt his view would be called “Christian” by Ms. Farnan or anyone else. James Madison, who penned the Constitution, warned, “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect.” If Jefferson and Madison were alive today, I doubt they could be elected. The guardians of the national myth would rise up and smite them as unbelievers.

    We respect the guardians and their myths at our peril because history (and science) changes and improves with knowledge, but the same force damages myth based on belief. That’s why the guardians fear the knowledge begat by questioning. For them, “knowledge” is gained in rote memory of approved truth. They chant in the school, temple, church or Mosque and fool themselves into thinking they’ve acquired knowledge.

    All those teachers, and there are many of us, who understand the value of questioning sacred myths serve this nation as faithfully as other patriots. What is true will be strengthened. What is false will be destroyed, as it should be. Such teachers should be honored. There is no greater gift teachers can give to students than to teach them to think. Don’t sue them for it. Try taking them to the Pyrataneum for dinner, conversation and a cup of coffee, no hemlock.

  8. longshadow

    Mr Corbett:

    That’s a coherent, very well-written, and persuasive defense.

    It seems clear to me that the challenge you made to Creationism had a clear secular purpose — to challenge the idea that mythology (theological or otherwise) stands the test of reality as an explanation of scientific phenomena.

    I have to ask: did the attorneys handling your case fumble the ball?

    Any chance of an appeal?

  9. Mr. Corbett, good of you to drop in, and thanks for your excellent comment.

    I’ve been agonizing over this court decision ever since I learned of it. If you were a teacher in a private school, you would have had nothing to worry about. But as a teacher in a state-run school, you are — like it or not — an agent of the state. Individuals have freedom of speech; but the state has no rights, only duties.

    I just re-read the judge’s opinion. He relied on the Lemon case, which we’ve all discussed with approval when it was applied in the Dover decision, to prevent state promotion of religion. The judge seemed to be sympathetic to your teaching, but … he pointed out that the Constitution give citizens “the basic right in issue: to be free of a government that directly expresses disapproval of religion”.

    That seems true of the California Constitution, which guarantees the right of “free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference.” That seems much more restrictive than the First Amendment, which prohibits the the state from the “establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

    Under the First Amendment, I’d rule that you didn’t prohibit anyone’s free exercise right. Under the California Constitution, it’s a closer call whether you “expressed disapproval” of the boy’s religion. I don’t know the facts, or all the precedents, but California’s Constitution seems a bigger problem than the First Amendment. The judge had “pendant jurisdiction” to make a decision under state law, but it’s not clear that he ruled that way.

    Given the restrictions of the California Constitution, it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, for the state’s schools to teach much European history. How could you teach the Reformation? The Galileo affair? What of Henry VIII and his split with Rome? A class that recites only names and dates isn’t very instructive, and a good teacher can’t flourish in that kind of environment.

    You have my sympathies, and my best wishes for your appeal. I think you’re a very fine teacher.

  10. I’ve decided that Mr. Corbett’s statement is too important to be buried here as a comment, so I’ve copied it as a stand-alone post:
    My Defense, by James Corbett.