James Corbett Wins His Appeal

We’ve been waiting a long time for this one. Our last update was James Corbett Case: Update 12 Feb ‘11. The only news then was that the appellate court heard oral argument from the parties. The next few indented paragraphs provide background information, which most of you can skip:

This is about Dr. James Corbett, an Advanced Placement European history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, California, whose classroom remarks that creationism is “superstitious nonsense” were ruled to have violated the Constitution’s establishment clause. He was sued by Chad Farnan, one of his students — presumably a creationist.

Chad had also sued the school board — which was found not liable by the trial court. Both Corbett and Chad are appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Corbett wants to be exonerated, and Chad wants the court to impose even more liability. During the appeal, Chad dropped his claim against the school board in exchange for their agreement to drop their claim against him for legal fees. Only Chad’s claims against Corbett remain. Corbett’s attorney is Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s law school.

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has many of the court pleadings available online. See: C. F. v. Capistrano USD.

All the news stories we’ve seen so far are copies of something from the Associated Press, which doesn’t allow us to excerpt anything, so we may have to update this post when we have a better source of information. Aha — NCSE has the opinion at their website: C.F. v. CAPISTRANO USD (29-page pdf file). The opinion is written by Judge Raymond Fisher, and the three-judge panel was unanimous. Here are a few excerpts, but the opinion should be read in its entirety:

Even statements exhibiting some hostility to religion do not violate the Establishment Clause if the government conduct at issue has a secular purpose, does not have as its principal or primary effect inhibiting religion and does not foster excessive government entanglement with religion. … More to the point, we are aware of no prior case holding that a teacher violated the Establishment Clause by appearing critical of religion during class lectures, nor any case with sufficiently similar facts to give a teacher “fair warning” that such conduct was unlawful.


[N]othing in the law would make clear to a reasonable person that he might violate the Establishment Clause by making the challenged statements in the context of a classroom discussion in an Advanced Placement history course.


The only cases that Farnan argued in his briefs clearly establish the law in the relevant educational context involve claims that school officials were promoting religion rather than expressing hostility toward it, and challenge systemic actions such as state laws and school district policies rather than parsing individual teachers’ classroom discussions.


[W]e cannot conclude that a reasonable teacher standing in Corbett’s shoes would have been on notice that his actions might be unconstitutional. [Citations omitted.]. We therefore affirm the district court’s decision that Corbett was entitled to qualified immunity.

And here’s the court’s conclusion (the quote marks and brackets are in the original):

“[T]he Establishment Clause presents especially difficult questions of interpretation and application,” and we cannot expect Corbett to have divined the law without the guidance of any prior case on point. Id. at 392. Because we conclude that Corbett is entitled to the protection of qualified immunity, we affirm the district court’s judgment granting qualified immunity. Because we do not reach the constitutionality of any of Corbett’s statements, we vacate the district court’s judgment in that respect. Each party shall bear its own costs on appeal.

This looks like a solid win for Corbett, and a wash-out for the creationist student. As we said in one of our earlier posts:

[T]he key to this case isn’t whether Chad can go through life with a silly smirk on his face; what matters here is whether there’s any money to be made in creationist litigation. If this case provides a good fee for Chad’s legal team, there will be an incentive for more of the same.

Children and their parents will be used as tools for rapacious “family values” lawyers. Creationist kids will be listening intently in class — not to learn any history or science, but to detect any “ungodly” expressions their teachers may make. Good teachers — who are already on the endangered species list — will become extinct.

Chad’s lawyers can still run around staging fund-raisers to keep their activities going, but we imagine Dr. Corbett is feeling rather good about the opinion. Unless Chad and his lawyers try to get the US Supreme Court to hear the case, it’s over. And it’s a happy ending.

End notes: While we were drafting this, the NCSE posted an article about it: Vindication for Corbett. And the Orange County Register has a good article: Teacher can’t be sued over anti-Christian remarks. It says:

Corbett said he hopes the ruling will empower more teachers to critically discuss religious concepts in classrooms.

“My classes have Jews, Hindus, Bahai, Muslims, Buddhists, and others,” he said. “Chad would demand a special place for his views, but in America, all beliefs should be treated equally by government.”

So there you are, dear reader. And congratulations, Dr. Corbett!

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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14 responses to “James Corbett Wins His Appeal

  1. Thanks

  2. The Register didn’t include my entire statement on the case. Here it is:

    First, I want to thank Dean Erwin Chermerinsky of UCI Law, Craig Johnson of Tenner Johnson and Dan Spradlin of Woodruff, Spradlin and Smart. I can never repay them for their legal work on my behalf and on behalf of teachers everywhere. I doubt they will get much credit, but the decision that resulted from their efforts affirmed the rights of teachers to open minds, no small thing.

    The Court’s opinion was more than gratifying, it was a victory for free thought and academic freedom. The 9th Circuit affirmed that in America, no religion has a right to demand that teachers defer to their beliefs. If that were true, teaching would become a Constitutional minefield. The Court held that “teachers must be given leeway to challenge students to foster critical thinking skills and develop their analytical abilities.” Chad’s lawyers argued that questioning “Creation Science” violated the First Amendment, but American law gives no special place to any religion. One person’s religion is another person’s superstition. To Jews, Muslims, Hindus and dozens of other religions, the New Testament is “Christian Superstition,” just as their views are superstition to Christians. When I referred to a religious belief as “superstition,” I sought to show respect for all by favoring none. My classes have Jews, Hindus, Bahai, Muslims, Buddhists, and others. Chad would demand a special place for his views, but in America, all beliefs should be treated equally by government.
    The one thing that bothers me most about this case is that neither Chad nor his parents nor the so-called Advocates for Faith and Freedom, ever made an effort to talk with me before filing the suit. In my view, they were all more interested in gaining publicity for themselves, and donations for the Advocates, than in protecting Chad’s rights. They cost our schools hundreds of thousands of dollars when the whole thing could have been settled with a phone call that they never made.

    Finally, here are two stanzas from Robert Service Poem (Reagan’s favorite poet) that have been with me for 50 years–since my father read it to me when I was a teenager:

    “Carry On”
    There are some who drift out in the desert of doubt
    And some who in brutishness wallow;
    There are others, I know, who in piety go
    Because of a Heaven to follow.
    But to labor with zest, and to give of your best,
    For the sweetness and joy of the giving;
    To help folks along with a hand and a song;
    Why, there’s the real sunshine of living.

    Carry on! Carry on!
    Fight the good fight and true;
    Believe in your mission, greet life with a cheer;
    There’s big work to do, and that’s why you are here.
    Carry on! Carry on!
    Let the world be the better for you;
    And at last when you die, let this be your cry!

  3. cnocspeireag

    What a splendid result. We really shouldn’t have to comment on the few occasions the overpaid public servants in the judiciary make a correct decision, but let’s just enjoy this one.

  4. cnocspeireag says:

    We really shouldn’t have to comment on the few occasions the overpaid public servants in the judiciary make a correct decision, but let’s just enjoy this one.

    The 9th Circuit has a reputation for judicial activism, but I don’t see anything like that here. It was Chad who wanted a decision for which there were no precedents.

  5. As a taxpaying California resident, I’d like to thank Chad for wasting my money on sanctimonious nonsense to feed his petulant, publicity-seeking ego. To paraphrase Dean Wormer: “Smug, peevish and ignorant is no way to go through life, son.”

  6. I like the original “fat, drunk, and stupid.”

  7. jim corbett said:

    “teachers must be given leeway to challenge students to foster critical thinking skills and develop their analytical abilities.”

    Jim, I have to ask. You used the specific words “critical thinking” for a reason, didn’t you?

  8. While I am certainly glad Mr. Corbett won and think it was the right outcome in this instance, he and others should be careful not to overinterpret the result. The Circuit Court did *not* disturb the District Court’s finding that Farnan’s constitutional rights were violated; it merely held that a qualified immunity applied because there was no specific statute or court precedence on this issue. However, this very case fills that void. Any public school teacher who, in the future, calls a particular religious belief, such as creationism, “religious, superstitious nonsense” may well not be able to claim qualified immunity.

  9. John Pieret says:

    it merely held that a qualified immunity applied because there was no specific statute or court precedence on this issue. However, this very case fills that void.

    I don’t think so. They said Corbett had immunity, so they tossed out the lower court’s findings about the unconstitutionality of his remarks — making no findings about them at all. So this is a precedent for nothing except the freedom of a teacher to teach.

  10. Mr Corbett,

    Thank you for fighting the good fight.

  11. No. While the Court vacated the district court’s judgment in respect to the unconstitutionality of the statement, it did so only on the grounds that they did not have to reach that question since the case was dismissed on other grounds. They did not find that what Corbett said was constitutional.

    Don’t forget that qualified immunity doesn’t apply if the teacher is “on notice that his statements *might* violate the Establishment Clause.” While a teacher might still be able to claim it is not clear what the law is in this area, the kind of direct assault on beliefs such as calling them “religious, superstitious nonsense” is much riskier for the teacher now.

  12. @John Pieret:
    While ignorance of the law is usually not accepted as a defense, I still don’t understand which was broken. As I understand it, the teacher didn’t label any particular religion “superstitious nonsense.” He was talking about creationism. Is that officially a religion now? There was a time when creationists would fight tooth-and-nail against the merest suggestion that creationism amounted to religion. Now it seems they’re arguing the exact opposite. They can’t have it both ways, can they?

  13. Mitchell Young

    I don’t think this stuff belongs in court, but let’s be honest.

    1) Corbett has no business teaching AP European history. The history of Europe is Christian, hostility to that religious/culture should be disqualifying. The instructor doesn’t have to share the beliefs, but outright hostility would make the empathy and understanding necessary for a good historical narrative impossible.

    2) Corbett, no doubt wisely, did not attack other religions (at least from the evidence presented here). This shows the typical self-hatred of today’s academia. Whatever is foreign (and yes, Islam, Bahai, Buddhism, etc are foreign imports to the US) is good, whatever is Western, American (as are, what, 85% of Americans) is bad. Had Corbett attacked Jews or Muslims’ beliefs, he’d be out of a job already.

  14. Mitchell Young says: “The history of Europe is Christian”

    Except for all the bad times, of course.