A lawsuit filed by a high school honors student and his parents against a California history teacher for anti-religion bias has ignited debate about the role of a teacher's convictions in the classroom.
Sophomore Chad Farnan tape-recorded his teacher's alleged "derogatory remarks" about traditional Christian viewpoints and comments that exhibited "hostility" toward Christianity.
Some of the comments by his teacher, James Corbett, included, "When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can't see the truth" and "Conservatives don't want women to avoid pregnancies – that's interfering with God's work." The comments were made while he was teaching Advanced Placement European history at Capistrano Valley High School.
"It just shocks me that someone would think that and say that," Farnan said in a report by Orange County Register. "He's my teacher, and I've lost respect for him. I'm offended."
In the suit filed last Wednesday, the 16-year-old and his parents charged the instructor of violating the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government from advancing religion or promoting hostility toward religion.
"Corbett causes students who hold religious beliefs to feel like second-class citizens because of their protected religious expression, beliefs and conduct," stated an announcement by Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a Christian legal group representing Farnan.
Farnan, who took the class as a requirement for college admission, said he taped the lectures with the recorder in plain sight on his backpack.
"Corbett has made derogatory remarks about Christian viewpoints regarding homosexuality, Viagra, birth control and sexual activities of teenagers. As a result of Dr. Corbett's hostility toward Christianity, Mr. Farnan has filed this federal lawsuit for a violation of his First Amendment rights," added the law firm.
The firm said the family will not seek monetary damages if Corbett is removed from the classroom, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Robert Tyler, the general counsel for Advocates, said the "blatant disregard for relevant topics of what can and should be discussed in a high school history class goes beyond moral reasoning."
"Students come to class to learn, not to be forced to listen to the personal, demoralizing rantings of their teacher."
Many, however, came to the history teacher's defense.
"I don't agree with everything he says, but that's not the point," said Capistrano Valley High graduate Erica Bashaw, 18, now a freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, to the Orange County Register. "Can you tolerate someone saying something that you don't agree with? Can you have a fiery debate about ideas? It scares me that that's not acceptable."
A Christian faculty member also supported Corbett.
"Corbett has been a powerful reminder to me that we 'Christians' do not have the monopoly on truth," Capistrano Valley High geography and history teacher Tom Airey wrote in the Orange County Register's opinion section. "… In an age where there is probably too much emphasis on teaching to the standards and getting 'the facts' right, Corbett is training young students to think critically."
Farnan disagrees. "He's only giving one side – that's not thinking critically at all," he said. Critics say Corbett, who often discusses current events, promotes his own liberal viewpoints and leaves little room for students to interject.
Meanwhile, the school's principal, Tom Ressler, described Corbett as a "solid" teacher, the local Times reported. Ressler noted that Corbett's class has a high pass rate.
Farnan, who took the class as a requirement for college admission, said that he will stay in school but stop attending Corbett's class until the lawsuit is resolved.
"He's against Christianity and bashes it all the time. He's been indoctrinating us and not teaching the class; we don't need to be hearing his political views during school time when we should be learning," the sophomore told the Times.
One parent, Lynley Rosa, said she pulled her son out of Corbett's class this year because of the teacher's anti-religious tone.
"The mockery of religion was a main focus in the classroom," Rosa told the Orange County Register. "[I]t felt like he wasn't learning what he should be curriculum-wise, so I pulled him out."
The complaint filed by the Farnan family is not the first lawsuit in which Corbett is listed as a defendant.
In 1993, Biology teacher John Peloza, who was challenging the school district's mandate on evolutionary theory education, listed Corbett as one of the defendants with "class-based animus against practicing Christians" who used "harassment and intimidation" to force him into teaching evolution.