Dispatches from the Creation Wars

About a year and a half ago I reported on a lawsuit filed in Capistrano Valley, California over a history teacher making a raft of anti-Christian comments in his classroom. The ruling (PDF) has now come down in that case and the plaintiff won, but only in regard to a single statement made by the teacher.

It was filed as an establishment clause suit, arguing that such comments amounted to hostility toward religion and therefore were forbidden for a teacher to make during instructional time. The judge in the case thus applied the Lemon test and evaluated the series of comments, which were captured on tape, on the basis of whether the teacher had a secular purpose in stating them.

It’s a rather odd ruling. The court found that one statement violated the establishment clause and it was a statement about another teacher who was teaching creationism. Here’s the court’s analysis on that issue:

The Court turns first to Corbett’s statement regarding John Peloza. This statement presents the closest question for the Court in assessing secular purpose. Peloza apparently brought suit against Corbett because Corbett was the advisor to a student newspaper which ran an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion rather than science in his classroom. Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, “was not telling the kids [Peloza’s students] the scientific truth about evolution.” Corbett also told his students that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper to present his point of view, Corbett stated, “I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.” 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.

Yet the court ruled that other statements that seem much more problematic to me did not violate the Establishment Clause. Like this one:

Corbett’s quotation of Mark Twain also requires close scrutiny. Corbett
stated, “What was it that Mark Twain said? ‘Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.'” The remark comes as part of a historical discussion of the tension between religion and science. Corbett contrasted science’s continuing search for “rational” explanations when one explanation proves insufficient as opposed to stopping the inquiry in favor of “magic.” Notwithstanding the biting nature of Twain’s observations, and this one in particular, it illustrates a turn to the non-rational when man cannot, or is unable, to develop a rational solution. Moreover, it is not clear that Corbett was espousing Twain’s view rather than merely quoting it. In context, the Court cannot
say that the primary purpose of the quote was to disparage, and thus it does not violate the First Amendment.

This seems like very strained reasoning to me. I can’t imagine any purpose to it other than to disparage all religious people and all religious belief. Whether you agree with that statement or not, I think it’s quite clearly inappropriate for a public school teacher to make such a statement in an instructional setting. There is a difference between teaching things that conflict with religion, as any public school must do, and deliberately insulting the religious and claiming that all religion is a fraud believed in by fools.

Even worse is this one:

For example, in one of Corbett’s lectures he stated, “when you put on your
Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.” However, this statement was made in the context of a discussion about how certain peasants did not support Joseph II’s reforms for religious reasons, even though the reforms were in the peasants’ best political and economic interests. Corbett also seemed to be making a general point that people sometimes make choices that are against their best interests for religious reasons and that religion has and can be used as a manipulative tool. He further suggested that in order to create social change and “overturn long-held traditions overnight without causing chaos” you need to first work to gather support for your position.

The “Jesus glasses” phrase, standing alone, could be read as a general assertion that all people who believe in Jesus cannot see the truth. However, given the context of the discussion and given that “[w]e must be cautious about attributing unconstitutional motives to state officials,” the Court declines to attribute such an overly-broad and improper purpose to the phrase for purposes of this motion.

Again, this is really strained reasoning. If he really wanted to make the nuanced point that the court thinks he was making, he could certainly have done it in a much more scholarly and serious way. Instead, the statement he made was inflammatory and insulting. There just isn’t any place for that kind of hostility in a public school classroom.

There will inevitably be conflicts between things taught in school and the religious beliefs of some students. When those conflicts occur, a teacher has to handle those situations with some degree of sensitivity. It is one thing to tell a student that they are teaching something because it is the position best supported by the evidence; it is quite another to tell them that their religion makes them incapable of seeing the truth and that their religion is a fraud believed in by fools. I think this teacher clearly crossed over the line here, and not just in the one statement the court found to be a problem.


  1. #1 Jackie
    June 1, 2009

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