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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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Corbett was then the adviser to the student newspaper, in which a Capo student had editorialized against Peloza’s teachings. It was in discussing the Peloza case in his history class 15 years later, in response to a student question, that Corbett made the “religious superstitious nonsense” comment that Judge Selna found unconstitutional -- an odd twist of fate further linking two highly publicized church-state cases from the same high school.

For some parents, the question might not be so much whether Corbett has strong views as whether he allows other viewpoints. In other words, are a variety of opinions tolerated in his class? Transcripts of tapes in court documents suggest open-mindedness.

“You should all know, it is -- it is completely safe, in here anyway, to disagree with me, make a comment, whatever you want to say,” he is recorded saying. “The only thing you’re going to get from me in response is, ‘On what basis are you, have you come up with this particular perspective?’" And again, later in the class: “It’s safe to disagree with me or say anything. Go ahead.” Many kids seem to have taken Corbett at his word, judging from the outpouring of student support he’s received since the lawsuit.

Corbett’s Christian defender

One of Corbett’s comments with a particularly interesting back story is his discussion of a former student who wanted to attend a Christian university. According to the tapes, Corbett told the class that the student (who had by then graduated) was brilliant and that he enlisted a minister’s help in making sure the student attended a first-class institution rather than the local bible college, which he said would not be sufficiently challenging academically.

That student is Taylor Ishii, now 23, and he and I met for coffee recently. Wiry, intense, a cross-country runner and former president of Capo’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Ishii explained that Corbett’s interest in him led him to attend the academically demanding Wheaton College in Illinois. He is currently completing a master’s degree in divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Ishii attended Saddleback Church growing up and remains connected. When he signed up for AP Euro in high school, “people were a little concerned -- you’re a Christian,” he remembers them saying to him. Corbett’s critical views were well-known, he says, though in retrospect, some of Ishii’s academic memories of AP Euro are as prominent as Corbett‘s opining.

“His tests were always hard,” he says of Corbett, and students even met in Saturday morning study groups that Corbett led. Further, Corbett tried different approaches to organizing the material to see which methods worked best in getting the highest pass rate on the AP exams.

Not that Corbett was muted when it came to his own beliefs: “He wasn’t a fan of religion, and he’s not afraid to challenge students… He likes the shock factor a little bit, but he can quote a scripture better than most of the kids who considered themselves Christians.”

Some students took Corbett’s comments as personal attacks, but not Ishii. “I was willing to challenge him and he appreciated that.” Sometimes, “after one of his little rants,” Ishii recalls, suppressing a smile at the memory, Corbett would call on him for an alternative perspective. This kind of back-and-forth helped Ishii become more adept at making arguments, something he feels Evangelical leaders have avoided, to their detriment.

“Corbett helped enable me to be confident intellectually. I would say this might blow the Farnans’ mind, but Corbett has played a big part in making me the Christian I am today.”