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.