The headline-grabbing lawsuit filed in 2007 by Chad Farnan, a senior at Capistrano Valley High, against history teacher James Corbett for allegedly expressing hostility towards Christianity in class, came to a close today, and it's still a little unclear who really won. The federal judge who issued the ruling found that there were dozens of instances where Farnan's First Amendment rights were not violated by Corbett's statements, and one instance in which they were.
So essentially, Judge James Selna ruled in favor of Farnan and in favor of Corbett, and he ruled against Farnan, and against Corbett. We were confused too. Here's how it broke down: Of the dozens of transcribed comments submitted in the lawsuit from hours of secret recordings made by Farnan in Corbett's classes when he was a sophomore, (including the now-famous "Jesus Glasses" statement), only one was found to have violated the Establishment Clause for expressing a "disapproval" of religion. And it wasn't the comment about the Jesus glasses.
That comment was tossed out: "One cannot say that Corbett's primary purpose here was to criticize Christianity or religion," Judge James Selna says in today's ruling. "The court finds that, given the context, Corbett's primary purpose was to illustrate the specific historical point regarding the peasants in the discussion and to make the general point that religion can cause people to make political choices which are not in their best interest... the Court notes that these views are not necessarily hostile to religion and are relevant concepts for discussion in an AP European history course." (A point Corbett made repeatedly in this exclusive interview with the Weekly last year).
Other statements made by Corbett in class (and submitted by Farnan in his suit)--about the Boy Scouts and Christian universities and contraception--were scrutinized by the judge and given similar rationales for why they did not violate the Establishment Clause once placed in context. With regard to the more than 20 statements, Selna issued a summary judgment against Farnan and in favor of Corbett and the school district.
The single statement that moved Selna to find that Corbett had violated the Establishment Clause had to do with a previous lawsuit involving a former Capistrano Valley teacher who taught creationism as fact and evolution as a fraud in his biology classes back in the early 1990s. The teacher, John Peloza, sued the district, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated when he was forced to teach what he called "the religion" of evolution. Corbett was included in the suit because he was the adviser to the student newspaper at the time, which Peloza alleged had run an article suggesting he was teaching religion rather than science.
The lawsuit was dismissed in 1992, after a U.S. district judge agreed with the school district's position that Peloza improperly violated state-mandated science curricula by teaching creationist theory. When Corbett explained the suit in Farnan's class, he made a statement with regard to Peloza teaching "religious, superstitious nonsense," according to the suit.
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"The court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context," Selna writes. "The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause."
The Farnans' lawyer, Jennifer Monk, told the Weekly that the single ruling against Corbett was enough for them to consider the suit victorious. "The judge determined that Corbett violated the Establishment Clause with the statement. From my perspective, that's all we need, whether it was one statement or a lot of statements, from my persepective it was favorable and we're ecstatic," she said.
Corbett, who has declined to speak with all media except for the Weekly, said he was still thinking about and digesting the ruling, and had no further comment. The case could continue if Corbett and the district decide to file an appeal with the 9th Circuit District Court, which Corbett has indicated may be a possibility.