May 14 2009

Teacher Sued for Creationism Comment

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I’m a little behind on the news cycle on this one, but thought it was worth a discussion. James Corbett, a teacher at Capistrano Valley High School, referred to Creationism as “religious, superstitious nonsense” during a 2007 classroom lecture. The student at which this comment was aimed, Chad Farman, sued Corbett for violating the establishment clause of the first amendment and promoting “irreligion over religion.”

After a 16 month legal fight Corbett has recently lost this case. U.S. District Court Judge James Selna said in a 37-page ruling, “The court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context.”

I have to say, based upon what I know of this case from the media, I agree with the ruling. If it is the scientific position that creationism is a religious belief and not science, and that it therefore has no place in the public school because of the establishment clause, then this cuts both ways. To be consistent we must agree that teaching in the public classroom that any religious belief is superstitious nonsense is a religious statement.

Also, the quote from the judge is telling – he could not find any secular purpose to the statement, even when trying to find a favorable context.

The case does raise concerns, however, in exactly what kind of precedent it will set – both legally and in the public consciousness (I am more concerned about the latter). The ruling should absolutely not be interpreted to mean that any statement by a public school teacher that offends the religious beliefs of a student violates the establishment clause. This is the fear I have heard expressed by some of my fellow skeptics. But it may trigger a rash of law suits for exactly that. If a science teacher teaches that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, will a student interpret that as violating his religious belief in a young earth?

Given the history of such cases in the US, however, I have faith that if such cases come up they will ultimately be ruled correctly. A local court in a highly Christian state may rule incorrectly, but the higher courts have generally done a good job of parsing the first amendment when it comes to creationism.

The reason this case should not lead to our worst fears – that teaching legitimate science will be silenced and that public school curricula must steer clear of every possible religious belief – is because of the “secular purpose” criterion. Teaching the findings of science in a science classroom has a secular purpose. Teachers should not be preaching to students about their religious beliefs – they should just be teaching the science.

This goes along with the notion that teachers should not be testing their students as to their faith or religious beliefs, only their knowledge of the course material and their ability to think critically about it.

But again – this cuts both ways. This also means that creationists cannot teach their religious beliefs as science. It further means that they have to accept the teaching of science in science class, even if the findings of science (or history or sociology or whatever) are discordant with their religious beliefs.

In fact the judge referenced the Lemon vs Kurtzman case as precedence for his ruling, where the supreme court set out three criteria for a law or government practice that does not violate the first amendment:

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.

We can’t accept the “advances” part of that criterion and not the “inhibits” part.

In the end, this ruling is a good thing. It confirms the fundamental legal basis for keeping creationism out of public schools. It reaffirms that the establishment clause applies to what is taught in the public school.  Whereas teaching evolution or the big bang has a clear secular purpose – to teach how science works and the current findings of science. It’s “primary effect” is not to advance or inhibit religion – it is to teach an understanding of science. And it involves no government entanglement with religion.

So even if someone in the future misinterprets this ruling and tries to abuse it to silence the teaching of evolution or other scientific findings, I don’t see how it will go anywhere.

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