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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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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.

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.

The context of the comments

After the case made headlines, Corbett was advised not to speak to reporters, and he found it frustrating to hear his words cited without getting to respond. Sitting in his living room recently, he explains some of the comments, starting with the “Jesus glasses,” which came out of a discussion of land reform in 19th-century Austria.

“It was a discussion of Joseph II, an Austrian emperor who tried to close the monasteries which had enslaved their serfs. He tried to close the monasteries and distribute land to landless peasants. He also tried to create equal justice under law with no privileges for church and nobility. Well, the church pushed back and the church had access to uneducated, deeply religious peasants and the church convinced peasants Joseph was going against God. In effect, the church put Jesus glasses on peasants and they couldn’t see their own best interests,” Corbett says.

Corbett concedes that some of the things he said “made me sound like a wacko.” He says many comments were made in the first few minutes of class, which he regularly devotes to current events, a topic recommended for California history teachers under the state academic standards.

“Board policy says students shall have the opportunity to discuss controversial events. It’s appropriate in a social science class. I try to relate anything that’s in the news to something in European history.” Corbett continues, as if anticipating the next obvious question: “How in the world can you possibly justify mentioning Viagra to 15- and 16-year-olds?” Ever the orator, he explains that Viagra’s side effects were in the news that day, and that there is a bona fide connection to European history: Victorian moralism held that excessive sexual gratification could cause blindness and now “here we are 150 years later and the Victorians were right.”

“Let’s face it,” he adds. “History has no use or meaning unless we can bring to bear the lessons of the past to what’s going on today. Nobody objects to the fact that people are drawing a parallel between Afghanistan and Vietnam. The difference is I would draw a correlation between the British experience of 19th-century Afghanistan and now.”

Teaching style

A memo distributed to Corbett’s students over the summer, “How to survive AP European History” gives advance notice of the current events discussions and recommends that students bring up the issues raised in class with parents at home. Why the instructions to talk to parents? Corbett thinks some students are not comfortable debating in classroom settings, in some case taking on the teacher, and would feel safer bringing up topics like the war, the economy and abstinence at home. He says parents have thanked him for inspiring kids to start political discussions at the dinner table, though obviously Chad Farnan and like-minded students felt differently.

Corbett uses what he calls a “modified Socratic” teaching style, which allows him to plow through an incredibly dense curriculum that begins with the Renaissance and continues to the present. One way teachers like Corbett are assessed is their ability to get the majority of their students passing grades on the demanding AP tests given in the spring. In court documents, Corbett said his pass rates in the last few years are 69, 66, 63 and 58 percent, all of them higher than the California average of 55. The newest pass rate for the nation in AP Euro is 63 percent.

As for his tendency to weave opinion into historical events, Corbett‘s jibes are almost all directed at the religious right, the Bush Administration or moralistic conservatism. But in a bizarre instance of deja vu (and conservatives would say, karma) the one comment deemed unconstitutional was made in a discussion about a previous lawsuit emerging from the classroom of Capistrano Valley High School. This one, dating back to 1992, also involved Corbett, who was one of the school officials sued by Jim Peloza, a science teacher and creationist claiming lack of freedom to teach that life was created, and that evolution was a theory.

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.”

Praise, some criticism, for Corbett

Ishii’s praise for Corbett’s teaching echoes many of the sentiments expressed on Ratemyteacher.com and Facebook's I Support Dr. Corbett page, with 571 members. Some 300 students demonstrated on Corbett’s behalf in 2007, and he has received hundreds of notes from former students. Excerpts from emails and comments from online venues include:

-- I want you to know that you remain one of the best teachers I ever had, even after attending undergrad and grad school. Your class was outstanding preparation for the intellectual discourse I encountered in higher education. I thoroughly enjoyed your course because you challenged us to evaluate and defend our beliefs and our views of historical events.

-- I am the father of [name removed], one of your last year's students. We are quite "conservative" in our house and we enjoyed the family discussions from the reports of your classroom discussions. For what it's worth, we never felt you crossed any "line.…"

-- I found your style to be incredibly useful in preparing for college classes and that your comments/asides stimulated critical thinking and made the connection between historical events and current issues. Plus, I can still remember standing in front of the classroom singing "Napoleon Bonaparte / had a very long reign [like Victoria!] / And if you ever saw him / you would think that he's insane" to the tune of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. That occurred eight years ago, and I still remember.

But Corbett is not without detractors. Among positive recommendations on Ratemyteachers.com, one student wrote in 2003, “If your [sic] a christian, then i'd be careful around him.”

Court documents contain a statement from parent Lynley Rosa, who said she found his comments offensive and met with him to explain her position, finally withdrawing her son from his class.

In an email to then-principal Tom Ressler, one former student wrote:

“Dr. Corbett regularly spent a large portion of class time ranting about religion, mainly Christianity. He expressed extreme loathing of Christians, and often mocked the Christian faith. He would regularly refer to Christians as ‘narrow-minded bigots who cannot think for themselves’ and other things of the same nature... When he was not bashing Christians, he would talk about how stupid and idiotic Republicans are….”

The author goes on at length to recount bitter memories of being a captive audience to Corbett’s views and complain that Christian teachers are fired for mentioning their faith while Corbett faces a “slap on the wrist.”

“As far as Chad’s outlook on the case, he seems to just feel like everyone’s views should be accepted in the classroom. He doesn’t want to feel ridiculed in his beliefs while attempting to learn,” says Griffin Beltran, a longtime friend of Chad Farnan's and fellow Capo senior. He described Chad as a boisterous kid who, at 6’5”, towers over his friends. A highly decorated swimmer and water polo player, Chad is not a politico by reputation. (Though he has a Web site with an image of Jesus’ face in the two lenses of a pair of glasses -- literally "Jesus glasses" -- and has spoken at political events, such as a GOP fundraiser.)

“I personally am nonreligious and he respects that a great deal,” says Griffin, who did not take Corbett’s class but whose brother did and spoke highly of him. What might be more relevant than Chad’s political activism is his mother’s. Internet searches reveal that Teresa Farnan worked on the Mike Huckabee campaign, is a member of a conservative women’s group called Concerned Women for America and belongs to a Tea Party organization. I called to ask for an interview but she did not respond to my request.

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.

Wearing his trademark teaching apparel, suit and tie, his remote in hand, Corbett directs students’ attention to a news item shown on screen about Ugandan laws persecuting gays, even calling for their execution, and mentions that Saddleback Church has been criticized for not using its considerable influence there to oppose the laws. (Pastor Rick Warren finally took a stand against them.) He doesn’t spend too much time on the topic, however, moving on to Power Point slides. Time to make sense of Europe’s endlessly changing map in a century of conflict, empire and nation-building. We’re talking Crimean War, Piedmont-Sardinia, Garibaldi, Cavour, the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm (a powerful, accomplished man whose son “was an idiot,” prompting Corbett to make a comparison to a certain fighter-pilot president and his cheerleader son).

Along the way we learn that a historical figure named Von Moltke was a cross-dresser, that 30,000 died in the Parisian uprising but not before they roasted rats, that “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is not all it’s cracked up to be – given that the military slaughter it depicts was all due to a mix-up, and that a Jamaican woman was a beloved wartime nurse even before Florence Nightingale, who got all the credit because the British are expert at romanticizing themselves. We learn there are breathtaking grottos on the Italian coast and that Corbett once roughed it in rural Missouri while working at a historically black university.

Some kids -- the ones on the couch in particular -- hang on Corbett’s lecture, especially his asides, weird trivia and personal stories, while other students sitting at the desks seem a little less engaged. But if the lawsuit against Corbett proves anything, it’s that you really don’t know which students are tuning in and to what. You can only say for certain what kind of class the teacher is running, and in this case, it’s a class that imparts vast quantities of complex information, incorporates entertaining storytelling and passionate opinion, refuses to coddle students, and ultimately, demands a lot of them.

“Pay attention here,” Corbett barks at one point, asking: “What do we know about Paris?” One kid makes a stab at answering, timidly: “It’s bourgeois?”

Wrong.

“Republican leftists don’t like Napoleon III,” Corbett says, explaining that the Prussian Army is firing on Paris but that it’s no easy task to take a well-defended city, especially when the French are willing to eat zoo animals rather than give in, and…. he’s off on another story.

Amy DePaul is a writer and college instructor who lives in Irvine, Calif. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post and many other newspapers.