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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.

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After the suit was filed, Chad went on to appear on Fox News, which played the recordings, proving both embarrassing, and in Corbett’s opinion, highly unfair due to being taken out of context. Corbett’s tapes included comments like, “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t always see the truth” or “Everywhere in the world. From conservative Christians in this country to, um, Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan. It’s the same. It’s stunning how vitally interested they are in controlling women.”

He also managed to slam the Boy Scouts (for homophobia), government abstinence policies, rendition, Blackwater and the U.S. penal system. He said there is no more scientific evidence that God created the world than that a “giant spaghetti monster" did, and he quoted Mark Twain’s quip that religion was invented when “the first conman met the first fool.” He said the crime rate is lower in Sweden, where the population is not particularly religious, than in the more religious U.S. He called Rush Limbaugh a “fat, pain-in-the-ass liar” and riffed on findings that Viagra could lead to loss of hearing.

Status of the case

Of the numerous comments caught on tape, Judge James V. Selna of the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, wrote that comments that were strictly political were not relevant and would not be reviewed. Only comments directly addressing religion were evaluated, using the standard set by the Lemon v. Kurtzman case. Selna wrote that the vast majority of Corbett’s comments on religion, when viewed in context, did not primarily disparage religion and served a legitimate secular purpose. Such remarks, he wrote, were not subject to a finding of unconstitutionality, per Lemon. But Selna said one comment served no other purpose than to disapprove of religion: Corbett’s remark referring to creationism as “religious superstitious nonsense.”

Selna found this comment unconstitutional, though, so far, Corbett has not suffered any disciplinary action as a result of the judge’s ruling. But even one finding of Constitutional violation could invite copycat attempts to censor teachers.

“The idea that he was found liable at all is enormously troubling. It has a chilling effect on the ability of teachers to teach,“ says Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine and a First Amendment expert who will represent Corbett at the appellate level. [Disclosure: I work at UC-Irvine, but don’t know Chemerinsky.]

Failing to reverse the one finding of violation is not the most alarming outcome that could occur; the Ninth Circuit could also decide that some of the allegations dismissed by Judge Selna were in fact legitimate breaches of the Establishment Clause.

“If the ninth circuit were to reverse on the many statements where he [Corbett] prevailed, there would be a terrible precedent,” he says. “Then those who want to bring lawsuits like this could scour every word a teacher says and look for anything they say that has hostility to religion and sue.”

Chemerinsky says that Corbett’s comments are not unconstitutional. Rather, an example of unconstitutional hostility toward religion would be “if the government allowed secular speech in a park and not religious speech. That’s unconstitutional.” A teacher criticizing creationism is another way of endorsing evolution, which is perfectly permissible, Chemerinsky says: “Teachers can express views that evolution is the accepted theory for the origins of life.”

As to why the defense team didn’t contest the recordings, which Corbett alleges were made without his permission and thus arguably unlawful, the answer can most easily be explained as a legal tradeoff. For procedural reasons, choosing to have a judge rather than a jury decide the matter meant agreeing to the use and veracity of the tapes, which Corbett still contends were edited.