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Corbett case ends with a "victory for teachers"

James CorbettJames Corbett

"The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal Tuesday from a former high school student who sued his history teacher, saying he disparaged Christianity in class in violation of the student's First Amendment rights," the Orange County Register (February 21, 2012) reported. The case in question is C. F. et al. v. Capistrano Unified School District et al., which began in 2007.

The case originated when Corbett, a twenty-year veteran 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 then appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a decision (PDF) issued on August 19, 2011, the Ninth Circuit 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 Corbett. Corbett told the Orange County Register (August 19, 2011) that it "was a victory for free thought and academic freedom."

Farnan then appealed the Ninth Circuit's decision to the Supreme Court. With its decision not to hear the appeal, the case is now definitely over. Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law who represented Corbett in the appeal, told the Orange County Register that "Corbett's victory is a really important victory for teachers ... it could have opened the door for other teachers to be held liable."

But the Register also quoted Douglas Laycock, a constitutional scholar at the University of Virginia School of Law, as identifying the case as "an example of a systemic problem in constitutional litigation": "They can't hold the teacher liable because the law was not clearly settled. Because they can't hold him liable, the law will never become clear on what teachers can say in class."