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Teacher Can't Be Sued for 'Jesus Glasses' Insult, Court Says

The attorney for James Corbett's former student vows to appeal the ruling. But the teacher's lawyer calls the decision a victory for academic freedom.

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that a Capistrano Valley High School history teacher cannot be sued over classroom comments ridiculing Christianity, but the judges sidestepped the question of whether the remarks were unconstitutional.

Because previous court cases have never established how far a teacher can go in criticizing religion, history teacher James Corbett couldn't have known if he was crossing a line with comments perceived as disparaging by a Christian student, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.

Corbett's attorney called the decision a victory for academic freedom, but the former student's lawyer vowed to appeal.

The case centers on statements Corbett made in 2007 during advanced-placement European history lessons at the Mission Viejo high school.

Among them were comments about creationism (“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") and religion's influence on politics (“When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can't see the truth").

The three-judge panel, which heard , said a teacher’s comments may sometimes rise to the level of unconstitutional hostility.

“But without any cases illuminating the ‘dimly perceive[d] ... line of demarcation’ between permissible and impermissible discussion of religion in a college-level history class, we cannot conclude that a reasonable teacher standing in Corbett’s shoes would have been on notice that his actions might be unconstitutional,” the court said in its 24-page opinion.

The decision overturned a May 2009 ruling by District Judge James V. Selna that one of Corbett's classroom statements--recorded by then-student Chad Farnan--violated the student’s First Amendment rights.

Noting that hostility to religion is as unconstitutional as promoting a religion, Selna ruled that Corbett's comment that creationism was "religious, superstitious nonsense" violated Farnan's rights.

The 9th Circuit agreed with the lower court that classroom hostility to religion is unconstitutional, but said:

“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."

Corbett said he was “certainly pleased” with the ruling.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s School of Law, called the decision “an important case for academic freedom."

Chemerinsky, who vowed to continue representing Corbett if the case is appealed, added: “It’s really frightening to me that teachers would get sued for monetary damages for what they say in class."

Farnan’s lawyer said the 9th Circuit basically “punted” its decision.  “The case is far from over,” said Robert Tyler of Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a not-for-profit in Murrieta that takes on cases which challenge religious liberties.

If the case had been about a Christian teacher communicating his religious views, Tyler contends, the court would have been quick to take a stand on the constitutionality of such comments. The same should be true for comments that are openly hostile toward religion.

Instead, the court created a convenient “Catch-22,” in which Corbett is off the hook because there have been no previous cases to guide his behavior.

“They had the opportunity to clarify the law,” Tyler said.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in late May that would have allowed the 9th Circuit to rule on the constitutionality of Corbett's comments rather than leave all teachers “permanently in limbo,” Tyler said. Although the Supreme Court ruling was too late to be included in February's oral arguments in the Corbett case, the 9th Circuit could have referenced the case in its ruling Friday.

Tyler vowed to appeal the decision, first for a rehearing at the 9th Circuit, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

Chemerinsky said he would be "shocked" if either court reviews the decision.

Capistrano Unified School District officials declined to comment.

Pam Sunderman August 23, 2011 at 10:48 PM
Actually my intention was to suggest one term in place of another...gadfly for watchdog...in the interest of clarification. That seems to be my self appointed task today. Not to be confused with your use of the term "liberal" as a perjorative descriptor. Although both "liberal" or "gadfly" can be taken as a positive or negative.
Capo mom August 23, 2011 at 11:14 PM
Intentions are like sweaty armpits, jollygirl. But to be clear, it is not the name calling you have a problem with, right? Please tell us what you say are "other "self-appointed tasks" are today as you are cruising through the desert." You sound like the average CUEA teacher, wandering in the desert, considering little about education's impact , protesting their value and saying "it is all for the kids." Right.
Reality Check August 23, 2011 at 11:24 PM
Just so you know, Roy, et al, after a three day conversation, many of us start reading from the bottom. We follow backwards to the left margin. Please format your "comments" with some understanding of that process. For my own understanding, what purpose does the 1500 character limit in the comments section serve, in your view?
Reality Check August 23, 2011 at 11:28 PM
By combining the four into one post via pdf, link or summary. By distinguish the four as part of one thread by posting the final three as successive "replies" to the first. By using quotations and other editorial marks to make the relationship between Penny's name and the words distinguishable. By listening to readers who express dismay, rather than belittling them.
Dan Avery August 23, 2011 at 11:48 PM
I stand corrected, thank you, Roy. And I wasn't suggesting Penny is biased. She is a very objective reporter from what I've seen. I was just trying to figure out why Reality Check was confused about it. I simply missed the first post and erred.
Dan Avery August 23, 2011 at 11:52 PM
"'Advocates for Faith and Freedom' is really a misnomer. The last two words in their name are redundant." So "and Freedom" is redundant? ;)
Pam Sunderman August 23, 2011 at 11:54 PM
Why so hostile capomom? You seem to be a one trick pony no matter the issue at hand. We all understand that you find all teachers to be the same union loving, kid hating, greedy people.
Dan Avery August 23, 2011 at 11:56 PM
wow, Capo Mom, that's some serious hostility toward teachers. To me jollygirl sounds more like an English major who actually paid attention and is probably also bothered by the seriously incorrect "15 items or less" down at Ralphs. So why are intentions like sweaty armpits? I love that phrase but I'm not sure what it means. It's a really cool combination of words however.
Shripathi Kamath August 23, 2011 at 11:57 PM
OK wiseguy, 'unmeaning', 'supercilious'?
Shripathi Kamath August 24, 2011 at 12:04 AM
"So why are intentions like sweaty armpits?" Because they caused less anxiety than astrophobia, but more intrigue than lachrymal inquietude. Besides axillary hyperhidrosis sounds made up. It's all for the kids anyway.
Dan Avery August 24, 2011 at 12:06 AM
Actually Capo Mom, The cultures I mentioned tend to score better than we do as far as education goes. So to me it sounds like their cultures respect education. I was an excellent teacher for some and not for others. That is the way teaching works. I used to encourage my students to listen very closely and carefully to what I had to say in the first hour at the very first class. No one teacher can help everyone learn. It's up to the students to listen and decide if a teacher can help them. They have that right and freedom at the college level. I would take attendance after a short break, after they had a chance to experience me and listen to the way I structured the course and what my expectations of them were. And then I would add as many people as I could if students left.
Dan Avery August 24, 2011 at 12:12 AM
Roy, yes she did. However I do see merit in Reality Check's confusion and in Jollygirl's solution since the nature of the comment thread allows for comments to be inserted between other comments. I understand the word limit, and I think it wise. However this is a fairly new way of dispensing information and there are doubtless a few bugs in the system. As jollygirl said, a "cont." would prevent any honest and rational confusion out there. As you know, readers are busy. And, again, I apologize to Penny and all for my own sloppy reading on this thread.
Dan Avery August 24, 2011 at 12:14 AM
Shri, I bet you meant the last three words. "And Freedom" are fairly harmless when placed next to each other in most situations. Not in documents like the Declaration of Independence, or ones of that ilk, but most of the time...
Dan Avery August 24, 2011 at 12:16 AM
so jollygirl, were you an English major? Does "15 items or less" bug you also? These are the important questions. :)
Pam Sunderman August 24, 2011 at 12:22 AM
Guilty as charged...although the "or less" never bugged me until it was pointed out. Rats! Actually it was a minor. I had a diversified major which left me somewhat informed in several areas but not well informed on anything at the time of graduation. I hope I know a little more now...being a lifelong learner and all. I am also proudly guilty of bleeding heart liberalism. Sadly, capomom will be disappointed to learn that not all of my colleagues in education (especially CUSD) share that view of the world. However we all manage to get along respectfully.
Shripathi Kamath August 24, 2011 at 12:24 AM
:-) Clever, Dan. "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the ***merciless Indian Savages*** whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." I wonder what would have happened if Dr. Corbett had passed judgment on those words.
Shripathi Kamath August 24, 2011 at 12:46 AM
"I like the idea of using humor to diffuse tension." What's the fun in that? I prefer using humor to create tension. Let's see how badly I bomb. "Mommy, mommy, at school today, a one-trick pony went totally berserk at Dr. Corbett's victory lap" "WHAT? The blasted union now lets ponies into your school?" "Only kidding mommy, it was Capo Mom" (I second that "Like" button to get over myself)
Roy Rivenburg August 24, 2011 at 12:55 AM
Reality C, replying to you is like playing Whac-a-mole. When one reason gets shot down, you invent another. At first, you claimed it was unkosher for a reporter to add a comment or post a story-related press release. When we demonstrated it was standard journalism practice, you then suggested we were posting information "on behalf" of the plaintiff, whereas the defendant had to post his own comments. When we explained how press releases function and said we would similarly post press statements from Dr. Corbett's side, you started harping about formatting and reading comments in reverse order (although the time stamps on your replies to the 4-part post indicate you navigated them in proper chronology), and "disrespecting" the comment section (oh wait, maybe you said that last one early on, and I'm recalling it in reverse order). And so on. It seems that what you really object to is the CONTENT of the press release. I think it was clearly labeled, journalistically justified and added context to the debate. Sure, it wouldn't have hurt to add "Continued" at the top of each part (and perhaps in the middle of each paragraph for those who scan or read backward), but I also find it hard to believe anybody who read the posts wouldn't quickly figure things out or would seriously think Penny was doing PR for the plaintiff.
Reality Check August 24, 2011 at 12:56 AM
Which is exactly why I responded the way I did. It is easy for others to misread. And it is naive to think that experienced editors (and in this case, Penny as acting editor) do not know their options and act with purpose.
Reality Check August 24, 2011 at 01:02 AM
And, at least you, SK, can distinguish between humor (yours) and spite (Capo mom.)
Reality Check August 24, 2011 at 01:34 AM
I read the posts in reverse order before beginning to comment. I implied that it was Penny who published the release, not Chad's lawyers. I called the last post a blatant endorsement. I insulted Penny, who posted a press release in an indefensible format. (Penny was clearly acting as editor, not author, having made no change to the content, only the decision of how to publish it.) In response to Reardon, I said that it was not the role of the author to moderate comments or supplement articles. Yet in my next sentence, I acknowledge that Patch can print any press releases it wants. By "moderate," I was referring to the role of debate moderator, who controls, limits and balances discussion. Penny's decision to supplement an otherwise fair report without editing or comment served to "rebalance" the commentary on this artlcle. It added no new information. Therefore, I deemed it a gratuitous effort to inflame. To offer to print a press release from the other side after the fact, should one appear, is an empty gesture. If there was anything newsworthy in that press release, Penny could and should have offered it up as her own comment or additional information and retained the perception that she is unbiased. I do not see the point of a Tolstoy-limit, if even Patch personnel see no need to abide by it in their "comments."
Penny Arévalo August 24, 2011 at 02:35 AM
I forgive you, Dan. And I forgive you for spelling Colombian wrong. ;-) (I'm a mom of a Colombian if you didn't know.)
Dan Avery August 24, 2011 at 03:39 AM
Thanks jollygirl. I hope someone other than me pointed it out. :) People often accuse me of being a bleeding heart liberal, but I'm more of a social democrat. Am also a lifelong learner. And while my major was English my focus was on the entirely practical poetry and fiction writing.
Dan Avery August 24, 2011 at 03:49 AM
Penny thanks for forgiving the spelling. Geeez, people expect writers to spell well. I knew this day was coming. I should have quit when I had the chance. I didn't know you were the mom of a Colombian. I figured you for the mom of a citizen of the U.S.. Dual citizenship?
Dan Avery August 24, 2011 at 03:52 AM
I don't remember saying any of that, Shri, about the "inhabitants of our frontiers" and what not...I may have been drinking or something...but do carry on... :)
Dan Avery August 24, 2011 at 03:58 AM
gadfly |ˈgadˌflī| noun a fly that bites livestock, esp. a horsefly, warble fly, or botfly. oh wait…here's the relevant part… • an annoying person, esp. one who provokes others into action by criticism. ORIGIN late 16th cent.: from gad, or obsolete gad ‘goad, spike,’ from Old Norse gaddr, of Germanic origin; related to yard1. yep that would be more appropriate, jollygirl.
Capo Parent August 25, 2011 at 10:27 PM
Both Carbett & Farnan had agendas and neither is without "sin." Farnan won the first round, but Corbett won the more important second round. If the matter gets up to the U.S. Supreme Court and it accepts the case, who will win the all important third round?
Jim Corbett September 09, 2011 at 09:43 PM
Capo Parent and others. The problem is that the court, with the Lemon Test decision, created a false equivalency between government actors who use their power to "establish" a preferred place for a favored religion and "hostility" toward religion. Martin Luther said it best, "Reason is the greatest enemy faith has." Fundamentalists of all faiths view reason as an assault on faith, but to give them a veto over rational discourse, or even stating a simple truth that contradicts religious mythology, in the name of "balance" is absurd. Chad’s lawyers argued that questioning “Creation Science” violated the First Amendment, but American law gives no special place to any religion. One person’s religion is another person’s superstition. To Jews, Muslims, Hindus and dozens of other religions, Biblical creation is “Christian Superstition,” just as their views are "superstition" to Christians.
Dan Avery September 10, 2011 at 04:12 AM
Mr. Corbett, "Martin Luther said it best, "Reason is the greatest enemy faith has." Bravo, sir. Spoken in the spirt of Martin Luther, himself, as a man more interested in the truth than anything else. Most of America does not appreciate that, let alone respect that, in their educators. I am in awe of you, Sir, for your courage to battle on to try to educate citizens rather than produce people with a high school diploma. You clearly heard the calling of a teacher, and understand that is a noble profession that will lead, ultimately, to mockery by frightened and undereducated people. I know from experience that yours is not an easy road, paved with gold and diamonds by some mythical, Republican-fantasy of a union. It is often frustrating, maddening, and belittling. You will always find a warm meal and a refreshing beverage of your choice at our home. I mean that. My wife and I always love the dying art of lively and intelligent conversation.
Rita Murphy March 08, 2012 at 02:28 PM
One question begging to be answered is whether Corbett takes on Islam for their treatment of women and homosexuals. My guess is that he's not that brave, just another person willing to make fun of others when the path is clear because Christians always get the bullying. Oh my, isn't there a law against bullying? Guess that doesn't work for Christians either. Let's see how he treats Islam and Sharia law.

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