Thursday, June 25, 2009

Teachers Should Have the Right to Say That Creationism Is "Superstitious Nonsense"

On May 1, 2009, a federal district court judge in central California issued a ruling that aimed to clarify what teachers may and may not say about creationism in public school classrooms. My initial reaction was that the attempt failed, because the judge’s legal reasoning was seriously flawed. Lingering over the ruling for almost two months and considering the few critiques that followed it, that conclusion has become even harder to avoid.

The case before the United States District Court for the Central District of California was styled C. F. et al. v. Capistrano Unified School District et. al.

“C. F.” was a student named Chad Farnan. He and his parents charged Dr. James C. Corbett, a twenty-year teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo with "repeatedly promoting hostility toward Christians in class and advocating 'irreligion over religion’ in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause." The teacher made the remarks in his Advance Placement History class.

According to the Orange County Register, "Farnan's lawsuit had cited more than 20 inflammatory statements attributed to Corbett, including 'Conservatives don't want women to avoid pregnancies — that's interfering with God's work' and 'When you pray for divine intervention, you're hoping that the spaghetti monster will help you get what you want.'"

Since Judge James Selna found nothing unconstitutional about 19 of the 20 utterances to which the Farnans took offense, advocates of church-state separation could just count their blessings and consider the ruling mainly a vindication of the teacher and of his right to speak accurately on religious topics.

The judge, after all, took pains to note that several of the challenged statements “do not touch upon or mention religion” at all. He even held that public school teachers have the right to offend a specific religious group: “A statement by a government official does not violate the Establishment Clause merely because a particular religious group may find the official’s position incorrect or offensive… This would be unworkable given the number of different religious viewpoints on various issues. This would also be directly contrary to the fundamental principles of the Establishment Clause jurisprudence because it would require a teacher to attempt to teach in accordance with certain religious principles.”

So what’s not to like about the ruling? The trouble is--as The Los Angeles Times agreed in an editorial on May 20th--that the judge found fault with a statement that really should have been protected under the speech and religion clauses of the First Amendment. And not content with that, the judge also talked himself into endorsing other statements by the teacher that seemed much more clearly an egregious assault upon religion. As a result, the ruling causes more confusion than it resolves.

The statement the judge found unconstitutional involved Corbett’s position on the religious approach of another teacher, John Peloza. In the words of the court decision:

“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.”

Strikingly, the judge finds it unconstitutional for a public school teacher to say about creationism what the federal courts have said! The courts have ruled, repeatedly, that creationism is a religious position that may not be taught in public school science classrooms. Driving that point home is the “legitimate secular purpose” of Corbett’s statement. And that purpose makes his statement a proper upholding of the court decisions against Peloza’s contrary behavior, not an “improper disapproval of religion.”

By contrast, the judge found no fault with Corbett’s lengthy diatribes on scientific reasoning and the Bible, in which the teacher distorts several Christian positions, then ridicules the distortions, with no evident secular purpose. The ruling quotes several of those statements:

“Um, see, people believed before the scientific revolution that the Bible was literal and that anything that happened, God did it. They didn’t understand. They didn’t have the scientific method. They didn’t approach truth. The explanation to everything literally was that God did it. And the ultimate authority, who was (inaudible). The ultimate authority was the Bible. And, for example, you have (singing) Joshua fought the battle of Jericho . . . [b]ecause the sun stopped in the sky. Well, if the Bible says the sun stopped, the sun must have stopped. Of course, those Chinese astronomers who were watching the same sun didn’t notice this phenomenon. But if it’s in the Bible, it must be true...So there you go. They believe the Bible literally... So, you know, understand that we have this sort of mindless centric notion, right? And these people didn’t even know about it – get it out. They didn’t even know about the Western Hemisphere. So they thought Jerusalem is in the center of the world.

“So – and presumably – and think how humbling it’s going to be, you know, when all these people who have been talking about Adam and Eve and creation and all of this stuff for all that time when eventually something happens, and they find out that there are people on another planet, six billion light years away, who don’t look like us, worshiping huge geckos. . . . You have (inaudible) people who are deep believers and find out that maybe we’re not so important. Aristotle was a physicist. He said, ‘no movement without movers.’ And he argued that, you know there sort of has to be a God. Of course that’s nonsense. I mean, that’s what you call deductive reasoning, you know. And you hear it all the time with people who say, ‘Well, if all of this stuff that makes up the universe is here, something must have created it.’ Faulty logic. Very faulty logic.

“[T]he other possibility is it’s always been here. Those are the two possibilities: it [the universe] was created out of nothing or it’s always been here. Your call as to which one of those notions is scientific and which one is magic. [Inaudible] the spaghetti monster behind the moon. I mean, all I’m saying is that, you know, the people who want to make the argument that God did it, there is as much evidence that God did it as there is that there is a gigantic spaghetti monster living behind the moon who did it.

“Therefore, no creation, unless you invoke magic. Science doesn’t invoke magic. If we can’t explain something, we do not uphold that position. It’s not, ooh, then magic. That’s not the way we work.

“Contrast that with creationists. They never try to disprove creationism. They’re all running around trying to prove it. That’s deduction. It’s not science. Scientifically, it’s nonsense.”

Here, said the judge, “the Court cannot find that the primary effect of the lecture was to disapprove of religion.” Instead, said the ruling, “a reasonable observer would find that the primary effect of Corbett’s statements above was to distinguish generally accepted scientific reasoning from religious belief and to illustrate a historical shift from religious to scientific thinking.”

I think most reasonable observers would say that Corbett’s statements do considerably more than that. Corbett reduces religious positions on which there was considerable debate within and among various churches to a univocal position he characterizes as religious. Invariably, it is the most ignorant stance any religionist took. Then he belittles that stance to compare God to “a gigantic spaghetti monster living behind the moon.”

Is that not a pretty blatant “disapproval of religion?” And what exactly is its “legitimate secular purpose?” There were ways Corbett could have developed and conveyed his points with historical accuracy and constitutional precision. Unfortunately he did not do so, resorting to religious caricature instead.

So it seems quite clear that Judge Selna’s ruling cannot be the last word on this topic from the federal courts. If other judges try to apply his ruling, they will find that it creates more problems than it solves. Hopefully they will see the wisdom of over-ruling him.

In the days after the ruling, Corbett said publicly that he was considering an appeal. Although he felt mostly vindicated by the court, he was concerned about “the chilling effect” of the sole ruling against him. But so far I have seen no report that Corbett has appealed. Perhaps he concluded that he survived the experience about as well as he could hope to. Or maybe he considered that an appeals court might not agree with Judge Selna that the 19 other statements can all pass constitutional muster. So we are probably awaiting some other plaintiff to help the courts clarify how separation of church and state applies to situations like these.

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