May 11, 2009
Disparaging Religion in Public Schools (or: Dr. James Corbett Speaks Out)
Most of you are probably aware that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (which is a federal trial court) recently ruled that comments made by Capistrano Valley High School history teacher Dr. James Corbett to his students violated the establishment clause by constituting undue hostility to religion in public school.
I hadn’t previously commented on the case previously because Ed Brayton beat me to the punch. Essentially, I think it is as troubling (on Constitutional and practical grounds) if a teacher routinely disparages religious beliefs in front of his students as if he routinely proselytizes them. As Ed put it, “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.”
But now that Dr. Corbett has spoken out about the verdict, I think the case is more borderline than the public record shows. As it turns out, all of the comments at issue in the lawsuit made by Dr. Corbett were explicitly made as part of a “Socratic Dialogue” moment at the start of class that was specifically identified by letter sent to all of Dr. Corbett’s students. That letter said:
“Most days we will spend a few minutes (sometimes more) at the beginning of class discussing current events from either The Orange County Register or the L.A. Times. I may also use material from a variety of news Web sites. Discussion will be quite provocative, and focus on the ‘lessons’ of history. My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents. Students may offer any perspective without concern that anything they say will impact either my attitude toward them or their grades. I encourage a full range of views.”
I included my home phone number and e-mail address in that letter and encouraged parents to contact me if they had any concerns.
In my mind, that letter sets out the legitimate secular purpose required by the first prong of the Lemon test — provoking discussion on controversial issues. Had that been accorded proper weight by the District Court, it would have shifted the burden to the plaintiffs to demonstrate that the asserted purpose was a mere “sham”; i.e., that Corbett used the fig leaf of “Socratic Dialogue” as cover to diatribe about religion.
In other words: the plaintiffs could still have prevailed in their lawsuit under this application of the Lemon test; they would have just had to introduce evidence that Corbett was haranguing his students and calling them idiots for believing in religion as opposed to expressing his opinion on a controversial (and non-graded) topic. That, it seems to me, strikes the proper balance between freedom of speech and the free exercise clause in public schools.