Both former student Chad Farnan, now a freshman at Pepperdine University in Malibu, and James Corbett, his former history teacher, are appealing a May 2009 ruling that found Corbett violated Farnan’s First Amendment rights when he called creationism “religious, superstitious nonsense” in his Mission Viejo classroom.
Lawyers from both sides said they hoped for a favorable decision after the spirited give-and-take with the three justices.
When a case is appealed, the discussion is framed around legal issues, which can be technical and full of jargon, and today’s hearing was no exception. The two legal issues the panel focused on was:
- Whether Corbett had “qualified immunity,” which is the legal way to say Corbett couldn’t have known he was saying anything wrong because there is no law or prior cases that outline what he can and cannot say.
- Whether Corbett’s many recorded statements violated the “establishment" of the First Amendment, meaning his comments were so hostile, they represented a government official endorsing an anti-religion stance or a religion of secularism.
Jennifer Monk, Farnan’s attorney, argued Corbett should not receive qualified immunity because he did not fight the accuracy of the statements as detailed in Farnan’s original lawsuit, filed in December 2007.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UCI’s School of Law, represented Corbett in court and said that panel should find that the teacher does enjoy qualified immunity, which would tidily end the litigation.
The question of whether Corbett’s many statements constituted a violation of the First Amendment rests on whether the justices find the statements hostile toward religion.
Two of the justices, Raymond C. Fisher and Mark L. Wolf, spent some time reviewing several of Corbett’s statements, including:
- "Aristotle was a physicist. He said, ‘no movement without movers.’ And he argued that, you know there sort of has to be a God. Of course that’s nonsense. I mean, that’s what you call deductive reasoning, you know. And you hear it all the time with people who say, ‘Well, if all of this stuff that makes up the universe is here, something must have created it.’ Faulty logic. Very faulty logic.
- “Those are the two possibilities: [the universe] was created out of nothing or it’s always been here. Your call as to which one of those notions is scientific and which one is magic. [Inaudible] the spaghetti monster behind the moon. I mean, all I’m saying is that, you know, the people who want to make the argument that God did it, there is as much evidence that God did it as there is that there is a gigantic spaghetti monster living behind the moon who did it."
- “What was it that Mark Twain said? ‘Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.’”
Chemerinsky said Corbett, in the third example, was only quoting Twain. In the second, he was using an analogy often employed by scientists. And in first example, Corbett was only saying there are alternative theories to Aristotle’s views.
Wolf interrupted: “That’s not how he expressed that.”
Monk argued that Corbett’s statements were obviously hostile. “This isn’t a subjective test. This isn’t about Chad’s religious beliefs. It’s not even about how Chad felt in that classroom or whether he was offended—although he certainly was.
“This is looking at whether Dr. Corbett conveyed a message of disapproval in the classroom from the perspective of an informed, reasonable observer,” she said.
Chemerinsky, on the other hand, said it was clear Corbett was not hostile at all. “Statements critical to religion are not equated with statements hostile to religion,” he said.
Early in the 43-minute hearing, Wolf questioned why Monk wanted to appeal when her client already had a victory at the district level with the statement about creationism being superstitious nonsense being declared unconstitutional.
“Right now, you have bragging rights. Perhaps you have a victory you could lose on appeal or on a trial,” he said.
Monk said after the hearing that she would welcome the chance to get Corbett’s statements before a jury.
Neither side had suggested the case be returned to the district court level for a jury trial. If that happens, Chemerinsky would not serve as Corbett’s lawyer, as he is an appellate specialist.
The judges did not make a ruling but will probably release a written decision within a few weeks.
After the hearing, Farnan, who was in court with family and friends, said his lawyer did an “awesome job.”
Meanwhile Corbett said, “I’ve never been hostile to religion in my classroom or anywhere else.” He said Farnan and his parents should have taken their concerns directly to him instead of hiring attorneys. Now, they have a fight on their hands.
“I didn’t pick this fight, but if you’re going to pick a fight [with me], I’m going to win,” Corbett said.