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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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Her attorneys, Advocates for Faith and Freedom, also didn’t return calls or e-mails. They describe themselves as promoting religious liberty and have taken stances against gay marriage and a school anti-homophobia campaign.

Certainly they are not the only interest group, liberal or conservative, to make schools a political battlefield; Texas officials recently approved academic standards considered pro-Christian and conservative in a decision expected to affect how textbooks used around the nation are written. And church-state issues continue to crop up in legal settings as well as in courts of popular opinion. Two examples: a teacher in San Diego chastised for hanging a sign in his classroom that says “In God We Trust” and an Ohio teacher accused of burning a cross on a student’s arm.

The cost, value and judgment of teachers

There are different accounts of why Chad Farnan came to tape Corbett – was it done in the name of academics or in pursuit of evidence? In a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Teresa Farnan said her suspicions about Corbett were aroused on the first day of school after Chad described a classroom discussion, “so I sent him to school with a tape recorder.” However, in court documents Teresa Farnan said she discovered Corbett’s comments only after Chad let her listen to the recordings, which he said he had made as a study aid. Corbett suspects he was targeted, and that even if the Ninth Circuit reverses the one finding of Constitutional violation, the Advocates have succeeded in using the case to drum up donations while offering likeminded activists a strategy for bankrupting public schools.

The chief communications officer for the Capistrano Unified School District, Julie Hatchel, said the district essentially has paid a $100,000 deductible toward Corbett’s defense, with the rest covered by insurance. (The district was sued along with Corbett, who was not held financially liable.) News reports say the case racked up at least $378,000 in legal fees.

It’s unclear what professional repercussions Corbett could face in the long term. Organizers of a recall effort linked to the district’s Board of Trustees have made their opposition to Corbett known on their Web site, though the deadline for legal disciplinary action has passed, and Judge Selna declined to levy a penalty. Hatchel said the Board is not authorized to sanction Corbett, though, he notes, there are ways of demoting teachers or forcing them out. The local teacher’s union has backed Corbett in legal proceedings, and the school’s current principal would not discuss the case with me.

On a personal note, Corbett has lost 45 pounds since the suit, his son has been jeered with the epithet of "atheist," and Corbett remains concerned about the intentions of the Board, “who are, ironically, responsible for my defense.”

Whatever Chad Farnan has suffered in the way of general teenage embarrassment or scorn from students who support Corbett, remains unknown.

Epilogue: A school day

It’s upbeat and sunny on the day of my visit to Jim Corbett’s classroom at Capo. This is prime real estate -- an airy, roomy classroom with windows and a high sloping ceiling. Oriental rugs spill invitingly across the floor, and a group of students lounge on a couch, notebooks on laps, while a young lady is curled up on a comfy chair. Other students occupy traditional rows of desks. Near the front of the class, a mannequin bedecked in the cap and gown of a doctoral student stands sentinel. Political posters of every sort crowd the walls -- from Ireland, the U.K., Italy, Iran and the U.S., depicting Obama, McCain, and one of former presidential candidates Kerry and Bush boxing, alongside an image of the skull-and-bones insignia.