Teacher Who Called Creationism “Superstitious Nonsense” Loses Case May 9, 2009

Teacher Who Called Creationism “Superstitious Nonsense” Loses Case

There have been a lot of stories this week about James Corbett, a history teacher at a public high school in California. A Christian student of his, Chad Farnan, had claimed Corbett was being hostile to religion in class.

Corbett had spoken about his “unequivocal belief that creationism is superstitious nonsense” — of course, that is absolutely true. Nevertheless, Judge James Selna said there “was no legitimate secular purpose to the statement and it constituted ‘improper disapproval of religion in violation of the establishment clause.'”

I don’t understand that. Corbett was a European History teacher, but I hope every legitimate, educated Science teacher would say the same thing.

I was more disturbed by the many other things Corbett said against religion (PDF) — the judge, though, said most of those comments did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

When I first heard about this lawsuit a year ago, I wrote that I (unfortunately) had to side with the student. Comments for or against religion — outside the context of the class — have no place in a public school classroom. I don’t know why Corbett was talking about religion… maybe he was provoked. But it doesn’t matter. He can’t let himself get off-topic like that.

Despite the fact that I agree with Corbett’s statement on Creationism (and several of his other comments), it’s hard for me to say he was correct to say them in class.

I know if this were a Christian teacher saying pro-Christian comments, we’d be furious. Why is it ok for this teacher to give his opinions against religion (even if you agree with them)?

(Thanks to Tony and hoverFrog for the link!)

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  • Gabriel

    I think he was out of line. He was teaching history and should have stuck to his subject. Also this will establish a precedent that can be cited when the many, many more religious teachers step out of line and try to teach relgion instead of the subject at hand.

  • Stephan Goodwin

    At first when I heard someone got into trouble for saying something bad about creationism, I was annoyed, but in general a public school teacher, as a government employee, should NOT SAY THINGS AGAINST RELIGION as part of his/her official role.

    If he had to say something, he should just say “there is no evidence for creationism” and move on…

    Now, if only Christians in public offices will remember this when talking about other religions or non-religion…yeah, right.

  • Considering one of my highschool teachers treated creationism as contemporary mythology in a class on mythology, I have to say I don’t think he was out of line. The reason is that creationism isn’t about spirituality or faith but about denying science and reality. Especially because from my reading of things there was a teacher violating the law and teaching creationism and it was a response to that.

    I agree that his other statements were far more out of line and I just don’t understand the judge’s ruling in this case.

  • If a teacher (note: TEACHER) says something that is verifiably correct, no matter what the subject or how controversial, then how is that bad?

    Would this be any different if some kid had been asking about horoscopes? Or homeopathy?

    Children should be told when ideas are considered nonsense by the knowledgeable members of society. Not all ideas or opinions are equally valid and children should be taught this.

    Heck, we don’t even know that the teacher isn’t a Christian. Most (all?) Catholics would espouse the idea that creationism is idiotic as the pope says so and he’s infallible.

  • My objection to this ruling (IANAL) is that the statement against creationism is no more a statement against religion than saying global-warming denialism is a religion. This is what is puzzling to me about the ruling.

  • dfledermaus

    The problem is not whether what the teacher said was true or not. It was whether what was said violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. 19 of the 20 statements Farnan’s suit complained about were thrown out because they were shown to have a legitimate teaching purpose within the class’s history discussion. This included statements like, “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you cannot see the truth,” which look pretty hostile when taken out of their context.

    The one statement that was found to violate the Establishment Clause, the one about Creationism being superstitious nonsense was judged not to have a secular purpose even in its context. While I think Farnan’s suit was otherwise meritless and that he and his sponsors had petty political motivations for filing it, it is important to note that government neutrality on religion cuts both ways: public school teachers can neither promote nor disparage religious beliefs.

    For a better explanation for what happened, check out http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-8947-LA-Atheism-Examiner~y2009m5d4-Orange-County-teachers-antiCreationism-remark-violated-law

  • bear with me, this a completely linear thought, but:

    if the court says that creationism shouldn’t have been singled out in this case, and is thus protected by the establishment clause here, doesn’t that also establish precedent that creationism (and thus intelligent design) is religiously based and shouldn’t be promoted in schools under the establishment clause?

  • Jeff Satterley

    I think an excellent outcome of all this is that Judge James Selna sided with us: Creationism is religion, not science. If it were science, what Corbett said would have been perfectly acceptable. Creation scientists should think twice before assuming this is a good outcome for their side. And we have plenty of proof that Intelligent Design was directly derived from Creationism (see the Wedge document), so its in the same boat. I’m very happy about all of that.

  • Jeff Satterley


    Heh, guess we had the same thoughts on this.

  • great minds obviously think alike, Jeff. 😉

    either that, or we’re both a couple of dunderheads….

  • Ken McKnight

    I have been an atheist for 42 years and a high school English teacher for 25. I have always taken care to maintain my objectivity concerning religious beliefs in class. In my honors class we discuss Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, and excerpts from the King James translation, among others. My daughter told me of an experience she had in a class discussion in another teacher’s class which makes me believe I must have been fairly successful in staying balanced. One student, who apparently didn’t know of my daughter’s connection to me, blurted out that I was always trying to force my Christian beliefs on my students. My daughter looked at the student in bemused disbelief and said, “But my dad is an atheist!”

  • Richard Wade

    Looking over the PDF of the filed complaint, it looks like Corbett rants and shoots his mouth off about dozens of topics, and it would take a heck of a lot of convoluted “context” to tie them into European History. Whether or not I agreed with his opinions on these widely varying issues, as a student I’d be sitting there wondering how his tangents are going to help me understand European History. Time in school is brief and there is much material to master. Having to listen to a teacher vent about irrelevant issues is to be ripped off.

    He pissed off some conservatives who started recording his off-topic ramblings, and he finally gave them one with which they could clobber him. The merit of the one statement that is sticking is in a way not the point, since if it hadn’t been that one, it seems likely that Corbett would have eventually given them a better one.

    Do your job well and don’t abuse the trust of your students. Teach science in a science class, history in a history class, etc. Do your best to make your subjects alive, real and relevant, but keep the soap box outside.

  • Aj

    Do people actually know the context and whether there was no secular purpose? Did he have any business bringing up the creationism case? If he did then I think he had every right to bring up the fact that creationism is superstitious nonsense, religion shouldn’t get special protection. If he just randomly brought up the case then the judge was correct.

  • dfledermaus

    If you read the pdf of Judge Selna’s ruling rather than the pdf of Farnan’s complaint, you’ll not only get a more balanced picture of what the issues are, you’ll get an explanation of the context the statements were made in – both the 19 the judge threw out and the 1 the judge ruled against. It’s not a hard read and you can find it at: http://www.ocregister.com/newsimages/2009/05/01/Student%20lawsuit%20-%20final%20ruling.pdf

  • Aj

    From the final ruling:

    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.”

    That seems to me to be a legitimate reason to bring up the fact that creationism is 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 the hell does that even mean: “there is more to the statement”? That’s not an argument or explanation, that’s just a decree. It’s no wonder this judge seems to have ruled against things making sense as a value, and advocating not basing beliefs on irrational ignorance and fear. If he can’t see the secular purpose in that, I can imagine a case being made against a teacher advising the correct use of grammar in the student newspaper as well.

  • Ender

    How can you teach European History without mentioning that a lot of what was believed was superstitious nonsense?

    What is this guy supposed to do, explain that the Greek gods actually physically intervened in battles, lest he in some way SAY THINGS AGAINST RELIGION.

    How can you teach about the importance of looking at bias in historical sources if you can’t criticize any of them that are religious in nature?

    History becomes dull very quickly when it’s just accepting what’s written, instead of investigating it. The reason my wife took history at university and I dropped it as soon as I could is my history teacher just made us learn what the book said, and her history teacher made it a big investigation. (and vice versa for why I stuck with science and she dropped it).

    What’s more Religious Studies are more interesting when it’s about finding stuff out, instead of just remembering stuff someone told you.

    One RS teacher I had, who incidentally was a lay preacher in a local Christian church, asked us to think about ways in which the feeding of the 5,000 could have happened without it being a miracle: story got retold and retold and changed, people brought their own food, the crowd size was exaggerated, and so on.

    I had another RS teacher who told us to write up what she told us about her sister seeing the face of Mary in clouds…

    Guess which lesson engaged me and taught me something?

    Good teachers inspire, they challenge, they make people think. How can a history teacher do that if a particular set of sources aren’t allowed to be criticized?

  • Frank

    I can think of a couple of ways creationism might be connected to European history. Firstly, we always say that the design argument goes back to William Paley, who wrote in Britain in the early 1800’s, that sounds like European history to me. Secondly, European history is filled with religion, with religion conflicting with science, with religion determining education and public policy, and it would not be inappropriate for a history teacher to compare history to a current example. Though admittedly it does not sound like either of those was the case here.

    More to the point, there is absolutely no reason that every single statement a teacher makes has to be connected to their particular subject. One of the best teachers I had in high school, who was also a history teacher, would tell us stories about his son or whatever. These stories had absolutely nothing to do with history, but so what? They were part of what made him a great teacher. I think a teacher who can go off topic and have some fun sometimes, but who still gets the teaching done, may be one of the best teachers a student can have.

    As to the comparison to a teacher making comments promoting religion, I think there is one key difference: this teachers statement is scientific fact, very few statements supporting religion are. And this is one place where I have to disagree with some of the defenders of science who say it would be ok to teach creationism in a philosophy class. As far as what it is constitutional to teach, I don’t see how it matters whether we are talking about a science classroom or a history classroom or a philosophy classroom or whatever. Creationism is superstitious nonsense, and it should be unconstitutional to teach it in ANY classroom in a public school. And saying that creationism is superstitious nonsense is scientifically accurate and should be perfectly acceptable in any classroom. The dividing lines between different sciences, and between science and history, are all arbitrary anyway.

    That being said, some of this teachers other comments, such as the “jesus glasses” thing, do seem much more problematic to me. So while I certainly disagree with this judges reasoning, maybe her conclusion that this particular teacher crossed the line was warranted? I don’t know, I’d have to look at it closer.

  • Eilonnwy

    This is merely a breach of conduct not a First Amendment case. Simple as that.

  • I am a European History teacher and an atheist. I teach about the nasty #$%@ religious people did throughout history all the time. How could you teach history without teaching the history of religion? However, I teach it objectively.

    As a teacher in a public school you CANNOT tell your students what religious views they should (or shouldn’t) hold.

    I think this teacher had a difficult time telling the difference.

  • Dave Huntsman

    Is “Greek Mythology” never taught or mentioned? That ancient religion still exists (as some commentators have found out in recent times). There is not a teacher in this country who a court would find guilty for saying Zeus was superstitious nonsense; for the court to only protect Judeo-Christian beliefs is, to be frank, unconstitutional.

  • Dave, your point is an illustrious one. In fact, teachers who call it Greek “mythology” are violating the establishment clause in the same respect as Dr. Corbett.

  • When teachers have no control over their tongue/emotions/temper, they should expect they’re risking getting in trouble.

    There’s a big difference between saying there’s no scientific evidence for creationism and saying that it’s superstitious nonsense. Respect is something all teachers should be teaching kids, anyway, but respect for religion is mandated by law nowadays.

  • LifeChanger69

    Goodness goodness….I don’t understand how speaking against creationism is being anti-religious. Creationism is more of a theory isn’t it? based from a religious idea but nevertheless a theory on how man became a part of this world. Some want it taught in schools. So would that be preaching in school to teach creationism? No…it’s an idea. And it’s bunk.

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