Teacher sanctioned for calling creationism what it is

May 11, 2009 • 6:12 am

Meet James Corbett, the teacher who was sanctioned for calling creationism “religious superstitious nonsense” in his California classroom.  Apparently he was up on 20 counts of violating the first amendment by gratuitously insulting religion (a student taped him secretly).  The teacher was found mostly not guilty, with one exception: the creationist comment.

This is very strange, as many of the other comments he made (link also connects to the judge’s ruling) are much more clearly gratuitious and unacceptable insults to religious views, including this epiphet from Mark Twain: “Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.”  Here’s the relevant part of the judge’s decision:

The Court turns first to Corbett’s statement regarding John Peloza … This statement presents the closest question for the Court in assessing secular purpose. Peloza apparently brought suit against Corbett because Corbett was the advisor to a student newspaper which ran an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion rather than science in his classroom. … Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, “was not telling the kids [Peloza’s students] the scientific truth about evolution.” … Corbett also told his students that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper to present his point of view, Corbett stated, “I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.” … One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should not be presenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the statement: Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is “superstitious nonsense.” The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context. The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

What bothers me is that Judge Jones said something essentially identical to what Corbett said in his ruling on the Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover et al. case — in a Federal courtroom.  Why wasn’t that pronouncement a violation of the Establishmenbt Clause?

I do believe in preserving religious liberty and avoiding promoting one religion over another — or deriding religions with a political purpose — in the public schools, but in this case it’s not that clear.  Here is some disagreement with the ruling by  Eugene Volokh (scroll down that page to see his analysis):

Establishment Clause Violation for Public High School Teacher To Call Creationism “Superstitious Nonsense”:

So holds C.F. v. Capistrano Unified School Dist., decided Friday. I understand the logic of the case — the Court has repeatedly said that the government’s disapproving of religion is as unconstitutional as the government’s endorsing religion, and the district court decision tries to implement that. But it seems to me that this just helps illustrate the difficulties posed by the endorsement test.

To begin with, the court concludes that it “cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in [the] statement,” applying the Lemon test’s “secular purpose” prong. But I would think the legitimate secular purpose is clear: The speaker is trying to get students to accept the theory of evolution, which he believes to be much more conducive to scientific thinking, and much more likely to produce useful results, than creationism. That’s a perfectly secular purpose. To be sure, it’s a purpose that is accomplished using the means of deriding religion. But that doesn’t stop the purpose (promoting belief in a scientific theory that the speaker thinks is sound, useful, and conducive to scientific thinking) from being secular. . .

. . .I say it again: The court may have been quite right as a matter of existing doctrine, and if we are going to say that public institutions can’t advocate in favor of creationism, it makes sense for the doctrine — which has been defended by claims of symmetry, such as that the government may neither endorse nor disapprove of religion, may neither advance nor inhibit religion, and may neither show favoritism nor hostility — to also bar statements that creationism is superstitious nonsense. But the result is either that (1) teachers can’t condemn voodoo, astrology, young-Earthism, and so on as the bunk that they are, (2) courts have to draw lines between which religious beliefs may be disapproved of and which may not be, or (3) teachers are even more at see about what they are constitutionally barred from saying than we’ve seen from past endorsement cases.

The whole issue is hashed out by readers over at The Panda’s Thumb.

But read the interview with Corbett, and see if you don’t think that he’s a good teacher, the kind you’d like your kids to have.   And he hardly seems to be a raving atheist:

Q. People have accused you of being anti-Christian. What are your personal religious convictions?

A. The most important words ever spoken are: “Love your neighbors as yourself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “Judge not, lest you be judged.” We hear those words from a lot of religions. That’s what I believe – that’s the core of it. I’m eclectic with religion. I was baptized Catholic and have worn a Celtic cross around my neck for the past 50 years. Right now, I’d call myself a smorgasbord Catholic. Occasionally, I go to a church on holidays. And I often stand behind the curtains at Crossline Church (a nondenominational Christian church that meets at Capistrano Valley High on Sundays) and listen to the sermon. They are intellectually stimulating, and they can often provide you with a perspective on major issues of the day. I like to hear what anybody has to say.

6 thoughts on “Teacher sanctioned for calling creationism what it is

  1. Based on this ruling, what is the “worst” (read: most honest) thing that a high-school teacher CAN say about creationism, without being taken to court? Could he have gotten away with it if he had qualified his statement with “In the realm of science…”?

  2. The Establishment clause is a two-edged sword when it comes to public schools. While it keeps them (or tries) from supporting religion, it also keeps schools from attacking religion. Absurdly then, the chief source of unreason in this culture is left uncriticized where it most needs to be criticized–during education.

    One way around this might be “reason ed” programs to attack the problem at its root. Remember “The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan? The issue is wider than religion. However, if nutter parents believe that their kids’ “salvation” is being threatend by reason, I would expect a backlash; religion needs and perpetuates a culture of unreason.

  3. “(a student taped him secretly)”

    Is it legal to tape a teacher’s lecture without the teacher’s permission?

  4. MelM got it right. The dude jumped the shark in that it wasn’t a science class, and that he showed a lack of respect. He would have won had he asked gentle questions about ID and finessed the interaction with the student.

  5. Back when I handled divorce cases, I would at times have a client come to my office with a stack of tapes that “proved” how irrational their spouse was, or how their spouse was an unfit parent. I found that the secret recording did have one benefit: the person making the recording was better behaved than they were otherwise likely to have been, as they knew they were on tape.

    But I can guarantee you that if I secretly record our conversations for 18 months with the goal of proving you to be bigoted, irrational, whatever else, quietly guiding and goading you into making statements that suit my purpose, I’ll be able to pull out 20 good quotes at the end of that period ‘proving’ my point. And some of them will very likely have other people saying that you didn’t maintain an appropriate demeanor and even ‘jumped the shark’.

  6. If this case goes further, I hope his statement is found to be legal but I don’t know about how the Supreme Court would rule.

    However, I saw a post on Dawkins’ site that’s a real shocker. It turns out that the separation of church and state may stop the teacher but has not stopped a religious organization from setting up shop on state property: namely, public school property. I’ve never heard of this and it’s clearly very dangerous.

    Quotes from the article:

    The Good News Club aims to use afterschool facilities as soon as possible after the bell rings, which maximizes the possibility of contact with non-participating students. It also has the effect of making it difficult for very young children to distinguish between the Good News Club and the other classes they take in school.

    The effect of the Milford decision on the ground goes well beyond merely granting the club and similar groups a right to freedom from discrimination in the afterschool world. In fact, it lifts them into a higher, privileged status against possible competitors for the afterschool pie

    The Dawkins link is here and it contains a link to the full article whitch is well worth reading.

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