By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Sometimes karma is a bitch. And it seems karma came back and bit Capistrano Valley High School history teacher James Corbett in the butt late last week, when a federal judge found that Corbett had violated a student’s First Amendment rights—with a single statement Corbett made in his classroom about one of his former colleagues.
Chad Farnan, a sophomore in Corbett’s Advanced Placement European History class, sued Corbett in late 2007 for allegedly insulting Christians and Christianity during class time (see “Class Warfare,” April 9, 2008). Snippets of the hours of tape Farnan secretly recorded in Corbett’s class and submitted with his lawsuit were leaked to the media, and both student and teacher made instant, national headlines. Corbett received death threats; Farnan created a website and chatted on national TV with Bill O’Reilly; ex-students from Corbett’s class (Christian and non-Christian alike) protested the lawsuit at the school, created a Facebook fan site and sent hundreds of letters of support (including one from a former student who was Sarah Palin’s press secretary).
Last week, after more than a year of failed mediation meetings and delayed rulings, with the case on the verge of going to trial, the suit came to a close with federal district court Judge James Selna’s summary judgment. Headlines instantly cast Corbett as “guilty” of “insulting Christians.” But although the judge ruled against Corbett for one comment, he ruled that Corbett had not violated the constitution with the more than 20 other statements submitted for scrutiny in the case.
In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, Corbett says he felt “beaten up” after the ruling was issued on Friday. “I expected to win. I expected the whole case would be thrown out,” he says. But after rereading it and thinking about it, he says he’s come to different conclusions with regard to the judgments in his favor. “I think it’s a victory for the right of teachers to provoke students into thinking,” he says. “The judge was quite perspicacious in recognizing that I’m really, in general, not hostile to anyone’s religious point of view.”
The statement Selna found to have violated the Establishment Clause for expressing a “disapproval” of religion wasn’t the now-famous “Jesus glasses” statement. Selna tossed that quote out, stating in his ruling that once the quote was placed in context, “One cannot say that Corbett’s primary purpose here was to criticize Christianity or religion.”
The troublesome quote had to do with John Peloza, a biology teacher who openly taught creationism at Capistrano Valley High and who sued the district in 1991, alleging he was being forced to teach “the religion” of evolution. Corbett was also named in that suit (he was the adviser to the student newspaper then). The suit was dismissed and called “frivolous” by a U.S. district judge, who agreed with the district’s position that Peloza improperly violated state-mandated science curricula by teaching creationism.
In class, Corbett recounted what he said to an attorney years ago: “I said I would be willing to sign a release, freeing the district from any obligation to defend me, but that I would not allow John Peloza to propagandize kids with this superstitious, religious nonsense,” he says. That statement was recorded by Farnan and submitted with his suit. “The court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context,” Selna writes. Thus, the statement constitutes “improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.”
The Farnans’ lawyer, Jennifer Monk, says that the single ruling against Corbett is enough for them to consider the suit victorious. “The judge determined that Corbett violated the Establishment Clause,” she says. “That’s all we need, whether it was one statement or a lot of statements.” Chad Farnan did not respond to the Weekly’s requests for comment.
Monk says the Farnans are seeking nominal fees, an injunction preventing Corbett from “teaching this way in the future,” and training for—and monitoring of—the teacher. “This isn’t about Dr. Corbett’s ability to teach; it’s about his disapproval of religion in the classroom,” she says.
Corbett says he hopes to appeal the decision. What worries him, he says, is the federal precedent the ruling against him has set. “You’d almost have to survey the class to find out what their beliefs are so you wouldn’t insult anyone,” he says. “We have kids who are Wiccan. We have every religion in the world, and atheists and agnostics. The decision puts teachers in a position of not knowing what they can and can’t say.”
Portions of this story appeared previously on the Weekly’s Navel Gazing blog.