Atheist Teacher vs. Christian Student May 12, 2009

Atheist Teacher vs. Christian Student

Last week, California teacher Jim Corbett lost his case against student Chad Farnan. Farnan had accused his history teacher of make anti-Christian comments during class and the court agreed.

Based on the lawsuit and the comments I’d read Corbett had made, I wasn’t siding with the teacher (though I agreed with what he said). I felt his comments were inappropriate.

Corbett speaks for himself, though, in a posting at

Chad Farnan, the boy who sued me, was an average student, who admitted under oath that he did not do the required reading for the class. If Chad’s lawyers, the “Advocates for Faith and Freedom,” and his parents were actually concerned with protecting the boy, why didn’t they simply come to me and ask me to explain my comments? Neither they nor the Farmans ever expressed concerns to me nor to any administrators before they came to school with attorneys and reporters in tow to drop a lawsuit on the desk of Tom Ressler, our principal. Perhaps more importantly, the Farmans were aware long before Chad took my class that I go out of my way to be provocative. Every year in July, I send a letter home to students who have signed up for my class. Chad admitted under oath that he received that letter. The letter says, in part:

“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’m all for a history teacher debunking myths… that’s a wonderful goal to have as a teacher. But I still don’t understand the context in which some of his comments could be understood as thought-provoking as opposed to simply anti-religious.

Saying Creationism is superstition nonsense is fine by me. It is.

The following, however, is not ok (PDF):

“How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach… [W]hen you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”

Why is that not ok? The teacher’s opinion seeps in. Is is accurate? In my opinion, absolutely. But phrasing it that way would make any religious student uncomfortable, and that’s not what a public high school should be encouraging.

If you want to have that discussion, let it be student led with the teacher being an impartial moderator. You can’t facilitate a good discussion when everyone knows exactly what your opinion is on the matter.

I know if a teacher said something against atheism (e.g. atheism is responsible for the worst genocides in the 20th century), I wouldn’t feel comfortable in the class.

Why is this any different?

(Thanks to Andy for the link!)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Actually, didn’t the “Jesus glasses” comment pass muster? I thought that the only comment the court found inappropriate was the one about creationism? Which is interesting because that comment didn’t technically have anything to do with Christianity, just creationism.

  • Randy

    I had a professor that taught human geography who just glossed over the religion portion of the class. He explained that one year a fist fight broke out between a fundie christian and another student. This was a college course.

  • So public schools, in your opinion, should be encouraging religious students to be comfortable, and not giving out true and accurate information?

    Sadly, your opinion fails to surprise me.

  • Aj

    It’s strange that in my opinion the least controversial and justifiable statement in the context was the one that the judge didn’t accept. The problem is that all the criticism being aimed against him is vague. History is all about opinion, its an art, not a science, they’re constantly injecting their personal opinions into everything they say about history.

    Perhaps “Jesus glasses” leaves too much room for interpretation, its too specific. His basic point is a justified one, it doesn’t matter whether you disagree or agree, it’s appropriate interpretation of history, he may need to tone down the rhetoric. I don’t have a problem with a history teacher interpreting the history in their own way. What else would a history teacher do, just read the government sponsered interpretation of history? That’s not great either.

    Basically you’re left with a wierd filtered government version of history and reality. If there are two opinions they’re split down the middle, and that doesn’t produce a great history either. The trouble is that people want history to be a single official account of history. History is about collecting and evaluating sources of information. If a teacher teaches that part well then it shouldn’t matter that he thinks that because Stalin didn’t believe in a sky cop he murdered lots of people. As long as students don’t treat his opinion as an authority, and he doesn’t expect that of them, it’s fine.

    It’s not that creationists and us have a scientific disagreement that creationism shouldn’t be taught in science class. It’s that they haven’t done any science whatsoever, they’re not even part of the science game.

  • figures

    I know if a teacher said something against atheism, I wouldn’t feel comfortable in the class.

    and you’d have no legal recourse too, I bet. Typical double standard. Why defend the side that only respects free speech when they agree with it? I don’t care what his occupation is. These students should be taught truth, period.

  • Epistaxis

    Saying Creationism is superstition nonsense is fine by me. It is.

    Why is that not ok? The teacher’s opinion seeps in. Is is accurate? In my opinion, absolutely.

    I don’t understand what makes these situations different. In both, you and the teacher agree that what he’s saying is accurate, and you and the teacher both have strong opinions as well. Wouldn’t a creationist student (perish the thought) feel just as uncomfortable in the first situation as a religious student in the second?

  • Larry Huffman

    Yes…I agree with everything he said…and maybe in a ‘the way it should be’ school setting it would not be a problem. But the teacher did cross a line with the way he phrased it. It comes across mocking rather than presenting facts and thoughtful opinion.

    He could have siad “but, through the filter of religion” instead of “jesus glasses”. Who knows, the kid may have still sued, and the court may have ruled against him, but I think he would be on better footing.

    So maybe the lesson is this…when a teacher comes close to mocking your beliefs…sue. If that happened, we would have so many lawsuits. My atheist children get far worse than this from their christian teachers…all of the time. My son voiced an opinion once and was told, flatly, that his view didn;t count since he was atheist…much to the delight of some of the evangelical students in the class. Guess I should have sued.

  • cl

    I went through the same stuff at my school where my sophomore biology teacher jumped to the grossest unsupported conclusions imaginable regarding the Miller experiment. Creationists aren’t the only biased gloats spewing lies and bias in public schools..

  • Dave Huntsman

    I too was surprised that the judge found the problem with the creationism one, and not the others (or vice versa); ie, I’m still not totally sure I 100% understand the judge’s reasoning, whether or not I agree with it.

    Hemat: “The following, however, is not ok:
    “How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach… [W]hen you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.

    Actually, it could have been. He’s a history teacher: if he had asked: “Let’s give some reasons for how to get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest”, and then asked for things he could list on the board. Hopefully he would have gotten things like:

    -greed (promise them something he knew they’d never get);
    -religion. (“go do this with me in the name of god x; because the pastor/rabbi/priest/pope says so…”
    – love (of a leader), or superstition, or fear of yyy, or…. see what they came up with. And then, have them discuss which ones pertained in the period he was talking about.

    Remember, the student admitted under oath that he wasn’t doing the homework; I gotta feeling a trap was set for this teacher. If what he is quoted as saying was done under that context, and those are the absolute worst….. he sounds like a fairly honest, serious teacher, who occasionally gets carried away, and would need to be reminded that it is not his job to imbue them with his opinions about history, as much as to teach his students how to do historical analysis, learn the basic facts and then want to do more, etc.

  • medussa

    Having read the teacher’s statement has definitely changed my view of the matter.

    It seems this class was voluntary, in the sense that the teacher gave the students the option of taking a different class if they weren’t comfortable with discussion. Personally, I applaud a teacher who puts controversial subjects on the table and teaches the kids to debate and disagree. I had a very few such teachers, too few, and they changed my life.
    We don’t know that the Jesus Glasses statement was the intro by the teacher, or in a humiliating context (for the student), it could have been a final statement wrapping up a lengthy discussion. Yes, he could have put it more diplomatically, but if he has shown integrity in the past about not grading or punishing students based on their stated beliefs, then I see no reason for him to not share his personal views on the matter.

    To me, it sounds like the student and the parents knew this might happen, and set the teacher up. They knew he was opinionated, they knew he would say what he thinks, they knew they would disagree with him, and they let their kid take the class anyway. And as Corbett says, instead of approaching him and saying, hey, you’re making my kid uncomfortable, tone it down a little, they simply sued.

    Great lesson for the kid: don’t communicate, don’t negotiate, just call a lawyer.

  • Tom

    Given the disclaimer, and taking for the moment as fact that the teacher is being honest in saying that the student admitted receiving it, I would expect that in a class designed and specified to have “provocative discussion”, it would be fair game for a teacher to say ANYTHING, even things that might otherwise violate the first amendment, because it could happen in the context of “making the student think about their base assumptions”, which is part of the specified purpose of the class and is generally legal, and because it’s clear that the teacher would be saying things just to make the student think and not because he necessarily believes them, and the student should know that.

    That said, it isn’t the kind of class I would choose to take, and I question whether it constitutes “history” – although the first amendment doesn’t require that I should want to take it, that it be about the topic it is allegedly about, or that the kid not be offended.

    Saying that creationism is BS – even saying that christian creationism is BS – neither respects an establishment of religion (it doesn’t say anything about disrespecting one) nor prohibits its free exercise (the kid is welcome to believe whatever he wants and even teach it outside the school) so I don’t see the problem. So I suspect either the kid sued to get out of a bad grade because he wasn’t doing the work and saw the teacher’s remarks as a good excuse, or the kid sued because he’s a touchy little bastard about his belief in the magical sky bully, is too stupid to recognize that the teacher will say things just to make him think, and wants to punish the teacher for not being part of his religion. Either way, seems to me like the kid is an ass, and I hope I never meet him.

  • Larry Huffman

    CL…the above teacher was not lying…he just stated in an offensive manner. Creationism IS the lie.

  • Infinite Monkey

    From what I understand, the teacher was allowing the “religion of secularism” in. I still haven’t wrapped my head around that. Atheism….eh…I’ll give you that, after all, it is a series of beliefs, but secluarism….

  • Larry Huffman

    Atheism is not a series of beliefs…it is merely a lack of a belief in god or gods.

  • Larry Huffman

    The United States was founded on the idea of secularism. If you do not understand it…read the Constitution and the writings of Jefferson, Madison and Adams. This is pure fact…despite what christians in the US so desperately want to believe (that we were founded as a chrisitan nation…lol…pah-lease…read a book other than the babel).

  • David D.G.

    The “Jesus glasses” remark was not only the teacher’s personal view, but also it was an expression of that view that was rude and unprofessional. In my opinion, that was the comment that might have deserved a rebuke of some kind (whether administrative or legal). Yet for some reason, the judge ruled it acceptable — and that was, in my opinion, the only statement reported that was over the top.

    However, the statement to the effect that creationism is superstitious myth was absolutely factual — a little bluntly delivered, perhaps, but not rude, and pure fact. So for the judge to condemn this particular comment suggests to me that he is sadly lacking in scientific grounding himself. I would seriously hope that this gets appealed, if only to get the teacher rebuked instead for something worth condemning, rather than for something that isn’t.

    ~David D.G.

  • Robyn

    Why is this any different?

    Well…one reason why it’s different is that it technically isn’t true.

    I’m not saying that the teacher’s comments were appropriate as they were phrased. I’m just putting in my quick $0.02.

  • cl


    Don’t jump to conclusions. I didn’t say that Corbett lied, and I don’t care what you think about Creationism. And don’t kid yourself – atheism entails positive truth claims.

    David D.G.,

    Good words.

  • Aj


    …atheism entails positive truth claims.

    Proof that theists don’t understand what a lack of belief is.

  • James H

    I’ve skimmed the opinion a bit, but my lack of background in this area of jurisprudence hampers my ability to analyze it intelligently. I’m trying to look up some quality legal commentary in the blogosphere.

  • cl


    I understand lack of belief just fine, but it appears you’ve conflated flippant and emotional quipping with cogency.

    As it happens, there really isn’t such a thing as a “purely” negative statement, because every negative entails a positive, and vice versa. (source)

    Do you extend your snippy judgments to educated atheists with whom you disagree?

  • Aj


    I understand lack of belief just fine

    Clearly you don’t.

    Do you extend your snippy judgments to educated atheists with whom you disagree?

    Regardless of your failure to provide a link, I’m going to assume that your equivocation between “I lack belief in gods” and “there are no crows in this box” (more aptly “there are no gods”) is proof enough. Lacking a belief doesn’t involve making a negative statement, someone who lacks belief does not say “there are no gods”. Anyone who has even the slightest interest in atheism, especially someone who visits sites about atheists should know this, unless they had some sort of “Jesus glasses”.

  • cl


    My claim is that atheism entails positive truth claims. NULL-ism, on the other hand, does not.

    You don’t know enough about my beliefs to sustain your “Jesus glasses” comment, and your assumption conflicts with appeals to rationalism.

    The link was intact in the preview, I don’t know what happened.

  • Aj


    What are these positive truth claims?

  • cl

    I think it would be wise to first agree on exactly what we mean by ‘atheism.’ Wouldn’t want to be accused of wearing them JC glasses again, you know. Anyways, while lacking a belief may not entail making a negative or positive statement, rejecting a negative or positive belief does.

  • Bill

    And don’t kid yourself – atheism entails positive truth claims.

    Please provide evidence to support your positive truth claims that Zeus, Thor, Apollo and Poseidon don’t exist? Unless you believe they exist of course.

  • cl

    What makes you think I wouldn’t believe in Apollo? Or Zeus? Or others?

  • Jamie

    This is amazing. I don’t know how the US legal system works but if a teacher states (in writing prior to the class) that he is going to be provocative and he is then provocative, I really fail to see how there is any issue at all.

    In the UK, there is a subject “Religious Education”. I remember my RE teacher, who was a devout Christian, being very keen to foster debate into religion and to teach us about other beliefs (or lack thereof).

    With specific reference to the matter at hand, there is no scientific basis for creationism and as such, there can be no defense for prosecuting someone who says so. The judge in this matter clearly has no grasp on reality.

    I know if a teacher said something against atheism (e.g. atheism is responsible for the worst genocides in the 20th century), I wouldn’t feel comfortable in the class.

    If the teacher was deliberately being provocative to foster debate, then why? I ask, because this is exactly the kind of statement that some of my religious friends use when we discuss atheism and religion. Surely, a controlled debate is exactly the place for extreme comments to be debunked?

    If it goes to appeal, I’ll be more than happy to make a contribution towards the teacher’s legal costs.

  • James H

    Professor Eugene Volokh’s analysis reminds us that law and good pedagogical standards are entirely different matters.

    I read through the decision twice. My own takeaway is that the Lemon test is extremely subjective.

  • Vincent

    I have a problem with his warning.
    He says the discussion may be provocative and that students may voice any opinion.
    He does not say he will be voicing provocative opinions. I don’t think his warning letter is sufficient to cover anything he says, just anything students say.

  • Brooks

    In the UK, there is a subject “Religious Education”. I remember my RE teacher, who was a devout Christian, being very keen to foster debate into religion and to teach us about other beliefs (or lack thereof).

    I’m reminded of how in this one Dawkins documentary, The Genius Of Charles Darwin, Dawkins was speaking to kids in a public high school biology class about evolution and explaining to the kids why simply believing in creationism because you were raised that way is not a good reason to believe it and he later was talking about how biology teachers are scared to be more vocal about creationism being bogus. You’d never see something like that ever happen in the U.S. Do British high school teachers have more flexibility to speak their mind about religion than American teachers?

  • Steven

    Teaching kids the truth is a tricky job – it seems to change every few years. Once we leave the math and science classrooms aren’t we at the mercy of opinion and interpretation? The history taught in today’s classrooms has changed over time – the facts may be the same but the interpretation changes depdending on current perceptions. Rather than trying to deliver a context-free summary of dry facts, I hope that my child’s teachers will engage her critical thinking skills to explore how the past has shaped the present. I especially hope that she’ll hear some things she may not agree with – how else will she prepare for life outside the classroom? More and more it seems that we’re asking teachers to impart knowledge while wearing blinders, a muzzle, and with both hands tied behind their back.

  • james corbett

    I’m the teacher. It would be a kindness of the writer would, at least, make an effort to find out what I said before condemning me. The “Jesus Glasses” quote, which the judge ruled was NOT a violation of Chad’s rights, came during a lecture on Joseph II the 18th century Austrian ruler. Joseph tried to free the serfs by outlawing the practice and closing the monasteries which had enslaved hundreds of thousands. The church (and the aristocracy which controlled the church)didn’t want to give up their slaves, so they took advantage of their control over religion and convinced the peasants that Joseph was going against God. In effect, I said, the church put “Jesus Glasses” on the peasants, and they couldn’t see their own interests. The judge is a “W” appointee who’s rulings have been wildly at variance with legal precedent and logic, found me “liable” for one comment. I’m confident that decision will be overturned.

  • james corbett

    Also for the record, the “superstitious religious nonsense” quote (referring not to creationism, which is nonsense in any event, but to the teaching of JOhn Peloza, a teacher who sued the school district claiming the right to teach “young earth creation science” because he had the “academic freedom” to teach science as he, a “qualified” science teacher, sees it.


  • james corbett

    Peloza’s case was thrown out by the judge who called it a “frivolous lawsuit filed in bad faith.” BTW, the “Advocates” (Chad’s lawyers) have sued on behalf of a pharmacist who refused to sell birth control to single women, on behalf of a doctor who refused reproductive services to a lesbian, on behalf of a “Christian” school that claim the University of California discriminates against Christians because they won’t accept A Bible BAsed History of the U.S. as equivalent to AP U.S. History, and on behalf of a “Christian” student who wanted the right to wear an anti-homosexual t-shirt to school.

  • Tarali P.

    The level of understanding among many American students concerning American history has been found wanting in recent studies. High school seniors were found in a recently released Department of Education evaluation of school performance to be less proficient in American history than their counterparts in the fourth graders. The proof is here:Most American students not proficient in American history

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