May 11, 2009

Disparaging Religion in Public Schools (or: Dr. James Corbett Speaks Out)

Posted in Atheism, Creationism, Law tagged , at 1:11 pm by Andrew

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.



  1. John Huey said,

    In Corbett’s post he says that the first time they were aware of a concern was when the defendants showed up at school with lawyers and reporters to present the law suit. I know that in Indiana the schools are mandated to have administrative procedures to handle such issues and that only (with some specific exceptions) after those procedures are exhausted will a court hear a case. Curious that California doesn’t have this provision or, if it does, that it was not used to get the lawsuit dismissed at the onset.

  2. John Huey said,

    After reading the decision, I think that I have to concur with the court: however, bear in mind that the court basically said that of all the statements that the plaintiffs were complaining about. only one violated the Constitution and, I got the impression, the court, felt that it was a putting the toe over the line type of infraction. I find it hard to second guess the Court, since I don’t have access to the original statement or to the context that it was made – the court looked at those considerations and still ruled against.

    As I see it, Corbett was cut by the double edge sword presented by the Establishment/Exercise clauses. If Creationism wants to be considered as a Science then it is right and proper to call it ‘superstitious nonsense’ but if, as the courts have ruled, Creationism is to be considered a religious belief then the State has to be careful to grant it the special privilege granted all other religious beliefs. As L. Ron Hubbard observed you can make a lot more money from nonsense if you just call it a religion.

    • Andrew said,


      I agreed with the decision too, until I read Corbett’s piece. I think the court analyzed the comments individually, as if they were said in a vacuum, for “secular purpose,” whereas the proper locus of analysis is in the context of a discussion group — which clearly does have a secular purpose.

      I also agree with Ed’s take that the comments that were found non-infringing (“Jesus glasses”) seemed to me to be far more problematic than the sole comment that was found to violate the Establishment Clause (“superstitious nonsense”).

      You are absolutely right that it is a “toe” infraction; had Corbett said “complete nonsense” or even “bullshit,” it would have cleared the Court’s analysis. That also gives some serious credence to Corbett’s chilling effect argument when a student can basically mine a teacher’s class for a five-second statement in which the teacher says something inartfully.

  3. phil said,

    This Corbett guy should also be sued for daring to compare himself to Socrates. Socrates never proselytized for atheism. And not just because he was a monotheist.He also valued rational dialog with his interlocutors. If Corbett were to stop prostituting Socrates’ good name on his blog and actually read some of Socrates’ dialogs, he might learn to respond to his students with logic and critical thinking rather than pompous ridicule. The court is absolutely right in this case, regardless of whether creationism is true or false.

    • Andrew said,

      You might have some difficulty finding someone with standing to sue on behalf of Socrates.

      • phil said,

        Andrew — lighten up, will you?

        • Aaron said,

          Seems he is the lighter one.

  4. Carl Blansfield said,

    Judge: Mr. Hutz! Do you have any evidence at all?

    Lionel Hutz: Uh, I have hearsay and conjecture! Those are kinds of evidence.

  5. Andrew said,

    Phil @ 5/12, 4:41 pm:

    That’s a joke, son. Sorry if you didn’t get it.

  6. If you like Socrates’ dialogues, you should read his monologues. Hilarious! Especially his Ten things you can’t say in Athens.

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