A federal appeals court in California on Friday overturned a lower court’s ruling that a history teacher violated a student’s rights under the Establishment Clause by making comments hostile to Christianity. The petitioner said he would seek revision.
A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that a 2007 lawsuit filed by Chad Farnan, then a student at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, against his history teacher, Dr. James Corbett, must be dismissed because there was no prior precedence.
The judges circumvented the question whether Corbett’s 22 statements that were allegedly reproachful to Christians, including calling creationism “religious, superstitious nonsense,” were unconstitutional.
“Mindful that there has never been any prior reported case holding that a teacher violated the Constitution under comparable circumstances, we affirm the district court’s conclusion that the teacher is entitled to qualified immunity,” said Judge Raymond Fisher in the ruling.
“Because it is readily apparent that the law was not clearly established at the time of the events in question, and because we may resolve the appeal on that basis alone, we decline to pass upon the constitutionality of the teacher’s challenged statements.”
In fall 2007, Farnan, then a sophomore enrolled in Corbett’s Advanced Placement European History class, was offended by comments Corbett made during class that Farnan characterized as “derogatory, disparaging, and belittling regarding religion and Christianity in particular.”
Before completing the first semester, Farnan withdrew from the class and filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights under the Establishment Clause.
The student’s lawyer, Robert Tyler from the Faith and Freedom legal organization, said he would ask the appeals court to reconsider and wouldn’t mind going even to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This ruling was a disservice to millions of public school children, parents and teachers,” The Orange County Register quoted Tyler as saying. “It’s quite ironic that while the 9th circuit complains in the decision that the law is unclear as to whether a public school teacher showed hostility in the classroom, it failed to bring clarity when it had the opportunity to do so. Instead of addressing the constitutionality of the case, the court abandoned it.”
The teacher, meanwhile, hailed it as a victory of academic freedom.
“The court’s opinion was more than gratifying, it was a victory for free thought and academic freedom,” he told the newspaper. “The 9th Circuit affirmed that in America, no religion has a right to demand that teachers defer to their beliefs. If that were true, teaching would become a constitutional minefield.”
Corbett, still a teacher at Capistrano Valley High School, is a Christian who regularly prays and attends church services. Farnan, now a student at Pepperdine University, is also a Christian and believes in creationism.
In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge James Selma ruled that Corbett violated Farnan’s rights. However, when Corbett sought immunity against paying damages or attorneys’ fees to the litigant, the judge granted it.
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