Saturday, May 2, 2009

First Amendment in the classroom

I was reading the news, came across this case that directly impacts my current workplace. In Farnan v. Corbett, I found out the tale of a history teacher at a high school in California, that made several possibly disparaging statements towards those that believe in creationism. One of his students felt offended, and that his First Amendment rights had been infringed upon (the establishment clause, specifically) and brought suit for relief in District court. This case interests me on many levels, primarily because the 1st Am is something that doesn't get a lot of news, and in the context of the classroom, where students seem to have less rights, it would seem the coverage is even more lacking.
So on with the case. Bear in mind that the full decision is here, for your perusal, thanks to the OC Register.
The legal standard that is going to be used in this case is the Lemon test, after the Lemon v. Kurtzman decision, 403 U.S. 602(1971)

"First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its
principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor
inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive
government entanglement with religion. Permissible conduct must satisfy all three requirements."

Dr Corbett made many statements that are brought up as exhibits, some of which I quote from the ruling:

*- "What do you think of somebody who thinks it’s necessary to lie in
order to make a religious point? . . . And um, this kid is in the class,
and, as I say, a Christian fundamentalist kid who wanted to be a
minister. . . . And, um, he was actually set on going – I mean, if your
parents go there, please, you know, don’t be too insulted. But he
wanted to go to Biola, which is the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, and
truly, as far as colleges go, it’s the – it is the college which George
Bush is being assigned to (inaudible), and it is the college that has no
academic integrity whatsoever. And it is a fundamentalist Christian
school. I think, a college that has basically one book."

*- "Now, the Boy Scouts have said, unless you’re willing to love God,
and unless you’re willing to – unless you’re not gay, um – they are
saying, being gay excludes you. Not believing God or not professing
a belief in God also excludes you . . . But you see, until they started
these rules, Boy Scouts used to – or Boy Scout troops usually met at
schools, and places like that, parks, government buildings. They can’t
do that anymore. They can’t do that anymore, because now they are,
in their own mind, a homophobic and a racist organization. It’s that
simple. . . . It’s call[ed] separation of church and state. The Boy
Scouts can’t have it both ways. If they want to be an exclusive,
Christian organization or an exclusive, God-fearing organization, then
they can’t receive any more support from the state, and shouldn't."

*- “What was it that Mark Twain said? ‘Religion was invented when the first
con man met the first fool.’”

*- “when you put on your
Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”

*- "Here’s another interesting thing that just kind of – I’m not implying
causality. I’m just using correlation. People in Europe who are least
likely to go to church . . . are the Swedes. The people in the
industrialized world most likely to go to church are the Americans.
America has the highest crime rate of all industrialized nations, and
Sweden has the lowest. The next time somebody tells you religion is
connected with morality, you might want to ask them about that."

*- "[C]onservatives don’t want women to avoid pregnancies. That’s
interfering with God’s work. You got to stay pregnant, barefoot, and
in the kitchen and have babies until your body collapses. All over the
world, doesn’t matter where you go, the conservatives want control
over women’s reproductive capacity. Everywhere in the world. From
conservative Christians in this country to, um, Muslim
fundamentalists in Afghanistan. It’s the same. It’s stunning how
vitally interested they are in controlling women."

*-"So we know what rehabilitation works and that punishment doesn’t,
and yet we go on punishing. It really has a lot to do with these same
culture wars we’re talking about. This whole Biblical notion: Sinners
need to be punished. And so you get massively more Draconian
punishment in the South where religion is much more central to
society than you do anyplace else. And, of course, the Southerners get
really upset, as what they see as lenient behavior in the North. You
know, we’re going to solve this problem. Except, guess what? What
part of the country has the highest murder rate? The South. What part
of the country has the highest rape rate? The South. What part of the
country has the highest (inaudible) church attendance? The South.
Oh, wait a minute. You mean there is not a correlation between these
things? No, there isn’t. Um, in fact, there is an inverse correlation.
In those places where people go to church the least, the crime was the
most. And that’s not just Sweden and the United States. That’s
Pennsylvania and Georgia."

As anybody can read, the good Dr. has a rather cynical and unsympathetic view towards the established religions. He was actually vindicated on all but one of these statements, however, and the District was found not liable.

"Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, “was not
telling the kids [Peloza’s students] the scientific truth about evolution.” (Id.)
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.”
(Id.) 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."

So the Court found that one statement out of the whole, the one about Peloza, as being beyond the safe zone delineated by the Lemon test.

It seems remarkable that one, maybe two parents had ever complained about this teacher. He certainly has a right to teach as the school district will allow, as far as academic freedom is concerned. But from the perspective of the students, his captive audience has a right to not have their religious beliefs undermined. I hope he curbs his comments, or makes room in that position for a teacher that will offer an unbiased perspective of history.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I actually think the court is clearly wrong in ruling against Corbett for the one statement about teaching creationism in the public schools. What is the secular purpose of the statement? Not a general attack on the guy's religious views, but a direct attack on the factual claims of creationism, which clearly are superstitious nonsense.
    Here's a post that expands on this thought: