SANTA ANA, Calif. – Lawyers for a former California high school student who previously won his lawsuit against a history teacher accused of bashing Christianity inside his classroom say a federal appeals court’s decision to overturn the ruling on Friday was politically motivated.
A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that a 2007 lawsuit filed by Chad Farnan, then a student at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, against history teacher Dr. James Corbett must be dismissed because there was no prior precedence.
Farnan, now a college student at Pepperdine, had audio taped Corbett’s lectures for study purposes and captured the teacher making numerous comments that his lawyers argue were an unconstitutional attack on Christianity and religion. In one instance, Corbett can be heard saying to his students, “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”
The judges did not address the question as to whether Corbett’s 22 statements fostered a hostile environment or were unconstitutional. Instead, they granted him qualified immunity.
Corbett was also recorded saying in class that creationism was “religious, superstitious nonsense.”
The federal Establishment Clause, the same law that makes it a crime for teachers to proselytize in a public school classroom, also makes it a crime to express hostility toward religion, Farnan’s lawyer, Robert Taylor, told The Christian Post Monday.
The Advocates for Faith & Freedom law group, which represents Farnan, said they will appeal the decision and take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
“The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to make constitutional limits and define what would be considered hostile comments about religion in a classroom,” Taylor said. “They specifically did not want to address this issue because they did not want to rule in favor of Chad Farnan. Even more specifically, they did not want to set precedent as to defining what hostility toward religion is in the classroom.”
Corbett was given qualified immunity because “there has never been any prior reported case holding that a teacher violated the Constitution under comparable circumstances,” said Judge Raymond Fisher in Friday’s ruling.
Taylor argues that had the case been held in another U.S. district there would have been a ruling on the constitutionality of the issue.
“We’re in a liberal circuit. If we were in another circuit in the United States we would have a decision that upheld the district court’s ruling that Dr. Corbett violated the Establishment Clause,” Taylor said. “There are plenty of cases where a Christian official has been found to have shown a preference toward Christianity and therefore held liable. The precedent has been established. It’s also a clear principle of law in the Establishment Clause that a teacher also can’t show hostility toward religion.”
Taylor told CP that the decision was incorrect in another way as well.
“What if it was a teacher who was ridiculing and mocking Muslims in the classroom or some other minority religion? I find it hard to imagine that the Ninth Circuit would not have taken that opportunity to address the question of constitutional law and provide clear guidance for the future,” he said. “Or, is it because in this case he was a Christian that this question was left open-ended?”
Taylor said that although he would have liked the court to make a constitutional ruling, they could have also used plain logic to establish classroom guidelines.
“In my opinion, there really is no constitutional question because I think everybody with common sense recognizes the fact that a teacher cannot show hostility toward religion in the classroom. They cannot disparage Christianity. They cannot disparage other faiths. They have the responsibility to remain neutral in a public school classroom,” he said.
“The only precedent that is not in existence is defining what is hostility in a public classroom? Where is the line drawn in a classroom? The Ninth Circuit had the opportunity to address that question, but failed to do so,” he added.
Meanwhile, Corbett viewed the overruling as a victory of academic freedom. He remains a teacher at Capistrano Valley High School.
“The court’s opinion was more than gratifying, it was a victory for free thought and academic freedom,” he told the Orange County Register. “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.”
Taylor said that Corbett has been attempting to defend himself by making the argument that his inflammatory remarks against Christians were meant to be provocative and stimulate discussion.
"I have nothing against being provocative in class in order to stimulate debate," Taylor said. "However, he was interjecting his personal opinions."
In a statement released later on Monday, Taylor added, “A teacher who spews hostility toward Christianity or other faiths is no more acceptable than the bully on the playground that is verbally hostile toward other students. This case is not about immunity for the teacher or money for our clients, it’s about protecting our kids.”
In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge James Selma ruled that Corbett violated Farnan’s rights. However, when Corbett sought immunity against paying damages or attorneys’ fees to the litigant, the judge granted it.
The Christian Post attempted to interview Farnan for his reaction to the decision, but was told by his lawyer that he cannot speak about the case.