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Teacher Sued For Bashing Christianity -- Will Others Be Censored?

A teacher in California was found to have violated a student’s First Amendment rights by disparaging religion in the classroom. The ruling could silence outspoken teachers.

Most weekdays, some 2,700 students crowd the sidewalks and hallways of Capistrano Valley High School, which is a quick drive from Orange County, California’s finest beaches. Capo, as the school is informally known, boasts a champion surf team as well as a prestigious academic reputation, among other distinctions.

The world’s most powerful megachurch, Saddleback, is about a twenty minute drive north of Capo; nearby are the skyline-dominating Crystal Cathedral and the nation’s largest Christian broadcast network. Non-Christian faiths, too, have set up shop in the OC, home to growing numbers of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Zoroastrian worshipers. In fact, for all the associations of Orange County with implants and Botox and for all the TV shows that depict a shamelessly decadent lifestyle, such as “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” this is foremost a highly religious place.

All of which has come to play out in the classroom of history teacher James Corbett, the defendant in a federal lawsuit that, depending on its outcome in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, could threaten traditional notions of academic freedom.

In late 2007, Corbett was sued for making disparaging comments about religion in the classroom and, in so doing, violating a student’s First Amendment rights. It may come as a surprise to many, but the First Amendment not only prohibits the state from endorsing a religion; it also has been interpreted to mean the state may not express hostility toward religion.

At 63, Corbett has taught government and Advanced Placement history and art history at Capo for the last 20 years. He previously taught at Lincoln, Stephens and Catawba colleges and Beirut University College in Lebanon. He has a PhD in rhetoric and journalism from Ohio State University but decided he’d prefer teaching high-performing high school students to the tenure-track professor life. Corbett is a self-described polymath who reads constantly: recent books include The Dumbest Generation and Guns, Germs and Steel, along with “anything by Howard Zinn and Barbara Tuchman.” 

Corby, as some of his students affectionately refer to him, is admired by many for his rigorous Advanced Placement classes that selective colleges demand of their applicants. But there’s no doubt Corbett offended some with his provocatively left-leaning, George W. Bush-bashing politics. Still, the lawsuit against him came as a complete shock.

Origins of the lawsuit

It was mid-December 2007 and the day began unremarkably for Corbett until then Principal Tom Ressler called him to the office in the middle of class. A few minutes earlier, a Christian legal organization in Murietta, Calif., called the Advocates for Faith and Freedom had dropped the suit on his desk. Attorneys Jennifer Monk and Robert Tyler and the student named in the suit, Chad Farnan of Mission Viejo, then held a press conference on the school steps. To back up their claim that Corbett exhibited hostility toward religion and “endorsement of irreligion” in the legal complaint, Farnan’s lawyers introduced tapes that Chad had recorded of his AP European history classes.

Then 15, Chad had enrolled in Corbett’s class because he was advised by a school counselor to take AP classes in order to be a strong candidate for UCLA and USC. Corbett remembers Chad as a kid who never spoke in class, except when it came to recording.

“He asked in class, ‘Can I record lectures?’” I said, ‘No, you have to learn how to take notes,” Corbett says. He also remembers telling Chad there’s no way he’d have time to listen to the hour-and-20-minute recordings from every class on a regular basis. Chad said in court documents that he put the recorder on the desk or on his backpack in plain view; Corbett says he never knew he was being taped and that a student later told him the recorder was hidden in Chad’s backpack.