California federal judge throws pie in face of the First Amendment


I’ve gotta think about this case some more, but it’s not a good decision.

  1. From my view as an Advanced Placement teacher, and as a teacher of history, the judge is contradicting Settle v. Dickson in saying, essentially, the student may claim religious exemption to get out of doing the hard work of thinking.
  2. The judge’s ruling might fairly be said to call into question the entire issue of giving harder-studying high school kids college-level classes, if the serious issues in those classes may not be discussed.
  3. Claiming that creationism is the root of Christianity is rather dictating Christian beliefs to Christians, and in this case, offensive and incorrect beliefs (most Christian sects do not favor creationism, and only a minority of Christians hold such views, generally contrary to their sect’s theology).  Can judges order people to believe something?  Can a judge dictate to the many sects of Christianity one false and crazy thing they all must include in their creeds?

The case is C.F. vs. Capistrano United School District et. al. [Dr. James C. Corbett]. The Orange County Register has a story and links to the case decision, with the headline “High School Teacher found guilty of insulting Christians.”

The headline is troubling because it was a civil suit — no “guilty” verdict could be rendered under the law.  But with a wacky decision like this, the reporter and copy desk must have been quite discombobulated, enough to let such a bizarre headline sneak by.

Will students flock to our AP classes now, hoping to be able to get out of the work by saying history offends their religion?  Ooooh, we could hope!

It’s a very, very strange decision, insulting to scholars, academicians, historians and Christians.  Go read it — what do you think?

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8 Responses to California federal judge throws pie in face of the First Amendment

  1. […] California federal judge throws pie in face of the First Amendment […]

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  2. […] California federal judge throws pie in face of the First Amendment … […]

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  3. GB says:

    By the way, John, those are great quotes regarding evolution and creationism – I’ll remember the Parable of the Talents the next time I think about engaging a Christian evolution denier.

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  4. GB says:

    I guess my main problem here is that it doesn’t appear that Corbett approached this in a “show the evidence” sort of way: he (from what I can ascertain) simply made a blanket statement that would seem like a mere statement of opinion. That’s where I think the line may have been crossed; it really sounds like the way Corbett approached the issue is the problem, not merely that he said that creationism itself is false (by the way, I still don’t understand how creationism is “nonsense” – demonstrably false, yes, but not nonsensical).

    Perhaps I haven’t read enough of the ruling. If Corbett is making a blanket statement as I’ve gathered from what I’ve read, then I can’t see any secular purpose in tying in creationism with religion (which I think it inextricably is, but let’s avoid that question here) and making a denigrating (albeit true) statement about it. I didn’t see anything to suggest that the judge was indicating that creationism and Christianity are necessarily bound to each other, and if that’s the case, then of course there is a serious problem here.

    Maybe finding out more of those specifics will help settle my opinion on the ruling. Certainly, this doesn’t sound like a matter of a student being able to use the religion card to get out of learning about something that he or she finds objectionable, but if there is evidence to suggest that the statement really does belong within a greater framework of content-appropriate learning (like my archeology example above), then I’d agree that the ruling was too far-reaching and restrictive on educator’s free speech (something I care about deeply).

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  5. John Mashey says:

    1) Yes, trying to teach history without mentioning religion seems like reading one of those CIA-redacted things where half the words are blacked out.
    (Maybe that’s a good exercise for students? A European or world history book with anything related to religion blacked out, or dark-highlighted? :-)

    Not everyone has a copy of Gilgamesh (we do somewhere, but we have a lot of books), and I was quite fond of the Greek pantheon, one of the more un-divine bunches around, especially when appearing later in Xena. I guess the Norse pantheon was pretty unruly as well.

    From your discussion, it sounds like you address the issue early in the course, and that ought to cover it. Is that not true in practice?

    2) Of course creationism is superstitious nonsense.
    Again, when I read the findings, regarding the first prong of Lemon, I still can’t tell what the judge really meant (given how he dismissed almost everything else). I certainly don’t understand how calling creationism “superstitious nonsense” gets Corbett in trouble with Lemon, except maybe in conjunction with the earlier phrase “religious, superstitious nonsense”.

    Suppose, in the earlier case, Corbett had just said “superstitious nonsense”. And then, had said “yes, creationism is superstitious nonsense, period. If a teacher avoids teaching the best science (or history) we have, for any reason whatsoever, they are mistreating their students. And, specifically, if the reason for avoiding teaching evolution is the teacher’s personal religious beliefs otherwise, that simply isn’t allowed. In this case, Peloza explicitly referenced his own religious beliefs as the reason.”

    I have to wonder if that would have caused the same ruling by the judge.

    I still don’t understand whether the judge is conflating creationism with religion in general, or Christianity in general, or with Corbett’s comments about Peloza, or with Corbett’s comments to the student. As I said, angels dancing on legal pinheads, perhaps, over a few words.

    But, I’m not really sure I understand your jump from the finding to your concerns in 3. The finding seemed really pretty narrow, around just a few words. I can’t imagine this means that your church has to teach creationism or anything else – can you explain how you get that from this finding? What am I missing?

    In any case, I’d hope for appeal as well. Teachers have a hard-enough job.

    ====
    Here though, I cannot resist quoting my father:

    1) A quietly-devout Christian, a church deacon for decades, who in his last few months, kept only a Bible to read.

    2) For 20 years, was usually President or VP of the district school board. It always had a strong science program, and if it ever had any attempts to inject religion, the school board must have squashed them thoroughly.

    3) He had a BS in Agronomy from Penn State. Unsurprisingly, scientifically-trained farmers have heard of evolution, carefully study plant & animal breeding, and sometimes have studied geology.

    4) He tended towards pithy observations:

    On creationism vs evolution:

    “Haven’t they read the Parable of the Talents? God didn’t give us brains to do science so that we could waste them being stupid.”

    On YEC idea that fossils and other evidence were created to make the universe look older, even though it wasn’t:

    “Why would people believe in a God that lies?”

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  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Your analysis seems spot on to me, John. Here are my concerns:

    1. In every discussion of religion we have in our pre-AP world history courses, I get kids who tell me, “You can’t talk about religion in schools.” Oddly, they are serious. So we stop class and explain what the law is, how it works, and why it’s impossible to learn history well without learning and evaluating the roles religions have played. That includes a lot of myth debunking. Most of the kids I have now have never heard of Gilgamesh, and it rather shocks them the flood story is so similar to Genesis. We discuss why scholars think that to be so. Inevitabley someone asks me whether I’m atheist, and on probing they say that any explanation of Bible stories is counter to their faith.

    Now, if those kids stop on every point where religion is mentioned and debunked — think of the river valley civilizations along the Nile, Euphrates-Tigris, Indus and Huang He, and think of the Meso-American civilizations — we’d be bound up for weeks, or we’d leave out huge, important chunks of history. Must I tiptoe around the issue of the Greek gods on Olympus (did they really live there?)? Did Apollo really drive a fiery chariot, and when did the Sun take over for him? Wasn’t Hitler right to persecute Jews, according to Christian beliefs? Sometimes a teacher has to cut to the chase, cut to the quick, and say an idea is not sufficient for belief, or crazy, or dangerous.

    And what, then, do we do when we come to the Reformation, for Catholic or Protestant kids (“My faith wouldn’t go to war over something silly like that!”); the Enlightenment, the scientific advances in the Industrial Revolution, Darwin, abuses of religion in Imperialism, the rise of Marxism and communism, etc.? What’s the purpose of education after all? I can’t help it if a kid’s Sunday school class taught something contrary to the Texas standards — the kids will be tested on what they learn in the class, not Sunday school. For AP, the kids are expected to function on a college level for the essays. If the kids adopt the creationist position, they don’t get credit.

    In Settle v. Dickson, the lawyers had the good sense to strip out the religious claims, but the young woman still claimed a free speech right to do her assignment on Jesus’s life even though that failed to meet several of the requirements set down, and even though the instructor had specifically vetoed that topic. The courts said kids don’t have a free speech right, nor a religious right, to avoid the assignment. This case in California looks a lot like that case, to me.

    2. Creationism is superstitious claptrap. Even the creationists have admitted that in two federal trials, when put under oath. Can we not teach what the courts find? That’s absurd. They may not like the results of the court battles, but they can go into the labs and do the science to prove their point if they disagree. They can’t overturn the law without doing that, however. This teacher was only teaching the law. “Superstition” may be an offensive word to some. Time to get over it.

    3. Creationism is not a part of any Christian sect’s beliefs, beyond a tiny few who argue that the Bible in Genesis is literally accurate history. Most Christian sects in America who are organized have issued statements supporting teaching science in science classes. Most Christian sects do not hold to creationism in any religious way, and to some of us Christians, creationism is offensive, since it rules out God’s role in creation in really odd ways — contrary to the foundational belief of most Christians that, regardless the specific methods, God is behind the whole shebang.

    Is the judge now telling me that, as moderator for our church, I must now tell our Sunday school classes they must teach creationism? It’s contrary to our non-creedal views, it’s contrary to what we teach in our universities, it’s contrary to what we teach in our seminaries. And yet, this judge claims we do believe it, maybe must believe it and find offensive criticisms of creationism. That’s crazy. He’s defining religion in a way that no federal judge has ever done before. The teacher’s claims would roll right down the fairway in our denomination’s teachings — and the judge is telling us we’re wrong in what we believe? Hey, why doesn’t my sect get a fair shake in that classroom? Who says the crazy fundie gets to tell us what to believe? (Look at the news stories — more than 200 students and former students showed up at a demonstration in support of Corbett. That man’s teacher of the year to get support like that.)

    I smell appeal real strong.

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  7. John Mashey says:

    1) As could be ascertained from comments here, I would be horrified if the results of this case indeed led to your 1,2,3 …

    but after reading the findings twice, I don’t understand why you believe they yield 1,2,3. Can you say more?

    2) In particular, the judge dismissed most of the complaints, and the key section seemed to me (a non-lawyer of course) like angels dancing on legal pinheads, specifically on page 15 of the ruling:

    “Corbett stated, “I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.”
    (Id.) One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should not be presenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the statement: Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is “superstitious nonsense.” The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context. The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.”

    I don’t understand the rules well enough to agree with GB on “overstepping the bounds”, but I wonder:

    a) Would the judge have ruled differently if Corbett had simply said “creationism is superstitious nonsense” without using the adjective “religious”?

    b) Where if anywhere, does this case go from here?

    I also wonder about the various interpretations, given that:

    (Christian => creationism) is clearly wrong

    (creationism => Christian) is clearly wrong, especially in light of Islamic creationism

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  8. GB says:

    Whereas I don’t find anything particularly objectionable (to me) about saying that creationism is false (“superstitious nonsense” is another matter), I think this ruling is probably right. I haven’t seen a good case, for instance, about how this statement could possibly be seen to have a legitimate secular purpose, which is why it fails the Lemon test. If Corbett had been saying that archaeology and radiometric dating tells us that the earth is older than 6000-10,000 years old, then that would strike me as a legitimate defense at least against this prong; likewise with teaching the Holocaust and evolution. It really does sound to me that this teacher was probably overstepping his bounds, just as if a religious teacher were to suggest that atheism is a foolish belief system.

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