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Vindication for Corbett

James CorbettJames Corbett

Was it unconstitutional for a teacher to describe creationism as "superstitious nonsense"? In 2009, a federal district court ruled that it was, in C. F. et al. v. Capistrano Unified School District et al. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a decision (PDF) issued on August 19, 2011, overturned the district court's decision "to the extent it decided the constitutionality of any of Corbett's statements" while upholding its grant of qualified immunity to James Corbett, the teacher in question.

As NCSE previously reported, the case originated when Corbett, a twenty-year history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, California, was accused by a student, Chad Farnan, of "repeatedly promoting hostility toward Christians in class and advocating 'irreligion over religion' in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause," according to the Orange County Register (May 1, 2009). Farnan cited more than twenty offending statements of Corbett's in his complaint.

In the district court's decision, however, only one of the statements was identified as constitutionally impermissible. In 2007, while describing to his class his involvement in the 1994 case Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District — in which a teacher unsuccessfully contended that it was unconstitutional for the school district to require him to teach evolution — Corbett characterized creationism as "superstitious nonsense."

The district court wrote (PDF), "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." But the district court also ruled (PDF) that because there was no clear precedent establishing that Corbett's comment would have been unconstitutional, Corbett was entitled to qualified immunity, shielding him from liability.

Both Farnan and Corbett appealed the decision. As the Orange County Register (February 11, 2011) summarized in its story on a February 11, 2011, oral hearing before a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit, "Corbett is seeking to be vindicated; Farnan is seeking a stronger ruling against Corbett, and for Corbett's qualified immunity to be tossed out." The panel was reportedly "skeptical and critical of arguments from both sides."

In its decision, however, the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court's grant of qualified immunity to Corbett, writing:

In broaching controversial issues like religion, teachers must be sensitive to students' personal beliefs and take care not to abuse their positions of authority. ... But teachers must also be given leeway to challenge students to foster critical thinking skills and develop their analytical abilities. This balance is hard to achieve, and we must be careful not to curb intellectual freedom by imposing dogmatic restrictions that chill teachers from adopting the pedagogical methods they believe are most effective. ... At some point a teacher's comments on religion might cross the line and rise to the level of unconstitutional hostility. But without any cases illuminating the "'dimly perceive[d] . . . line[ ] of demarcation'" between permissible and impermissible discussion of religion in a college level history class [Corbett was teaching Advanced Placement European history], we cannot conclude that a reasonable teacher standing in Corbett's shoes would have been on notice that his actions might be unconstitutional.
The decision added, "Because we do not reach the constitutionality of any of Corbett's statements, we vacate the district court’s judgment in that respect."

The Orange County Register (August 19, 2011) reported, "Robert Tyler, a lawyer with the Faith and Freedom legal organization who represented the student, said he would ask the appeals court to reconsider its decision [presumably en banc, i.e., with eleven judges from the circuit hearing the appeal]. Tyler also said he would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case if the appeals court doesn't change its ruling."