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Court Rules for Teacher Who Criticized Creationism

The Christian Science Monitor has a story about a teacher in California who criticized creationism in class in 2007:

A three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the lawsuit against an advanced placement history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo must be thrown out of court because the teacher was entitled to immunity.

The San Francisco-based appeals court said the teacher was entitled to immunity because it was not clearly established in the law that a teacher’s expression of hostility to certain religious beliefs in a public school classroom would violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

It goes on to quote some of the things Corbett said in class:

“Aristotle … argued, you know, there sort of has to be a God. Of course that’s nonsense,” Corbett said according to a transcript of his lecture. “I mean, that’s what you call deductive reasoning, you know. And you hear it all the time with people who say, ‘Well, if all this stuff that makes up the universe is here, something must have created it.’ Faulty logic. Very faulty logic.”

He continued: “The other possibility is, it’s always been there.… Your call as to which one of those notions is scientific and which one is magic.”

“All I’m saying is that, you know, the people who want to make the argument that God did it, there is as much evidence that God did it as there is that there is a giant spaghetti monster living behind the moon who did it,” the transcript says.

Corbett told his students that “real” scientists try to disprove the theory of evolution. “Contrast that with creationists,” he told his students. “They never try to disprove creationism. They’re all running around trying to prove it. That’s deduction. It’s not science. Scientifically, it’s nonsense.”

All of which is true, of course, which doesn’t mean there aren’t first amendment issues:

“Farnan [the plaintiff] asserts that it has been clearly established for many years that the government must remain neutral with regard to religion, and it may not show its disapproval of religion,” Fisher said.

“This overbroad proposition, cast at a high level of generality, is just the sort of sweeping statement of the law that is inappropriate for assessing whether qualified immunity applies,” the judge said.

Because the law was not clearly established, the panel said, they need not assess the underlying constitutional issue.

So as I understand it, the court ruled that complete and absolute neutrality on religious issues, forbidding teachers from saying anything one way or another about religious issues, would be a straitjacket. This is unreasonable, because teachers need some breathing room to do their jobs. That while a pattern of anti-creationist tirades might be actionable, Corbett’s statements do not rise to that level.

I guess it’s a bit like saying “don’t waste the court’s time because he stole fifty cents from you. Come back when it’s twenty bucks.”

The NCSE is also on this, and goes into more detail about the facts and precedents.

At any rate, I’m not sure yet how I feel about this decision. On one hand, Corbett’s absolutely right in what he said about creationism, and there’s data to back that up, so it’s arguably appropriate for a science class. At the same time, there’s that whole first-amendment neutrality-toward-religion thing. And of course the rules apply to teachers pushing creationism as well. Though again, there’s a difference between one or two offhand comments, and a pattern of bias.

So in the end, I guess I can live with this.

(h/t /.)