An appellate court has ruled against a Murrieta-based law firm whose client, a student, sued his history teacher for making anti-Christian remarks.Because the courts have never established how far a teacher can go in criticizing religion, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a Capistrano Valley High School history teacher could not have known whether he was overstepping his bounds when he made a number of comments a Christian student took as disparaging.
Robert Tyler of Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a not-for-profit law firm in Murrieta that takes on cases which challenge religious liberties, vowed to appeal the case, first for a rehearing at the 9th Circuit, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
“The case is far from over,” Tyler said.
The court declined to speak to the constitutionality of teacher James Corbett’s comments, made during Advanced Placement European History lessons at the Mission Viejo-based high school.
Among them were comments such as, “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;” and, “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”
The three-judge panel, who heard oral arguments from each side’s attorneys in February, 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 ruled in its 24-page opinion.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s School of Law, called the ruling “an important case for academic freedom.
“It’s really frightening to me that teachers would get sued for monetary damages for what they say in class,” said Chemerinsky, who vowed to continue to represent Corbett as long as the case is on appeal.
“I would be shocked if there was either an en banc review or Supreme Court review,” he said.
Corbett said Friday he was “certainly pleased” with the ruling. “In my view, it should’ve been thrown out in the first place,” he said.
On May 1, 2009, District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana ruled that one of the statements then-student Chad Farnan recorded during Corbett’s classes violated the student’s First Amendment rights.
Farnan’s lawyers argued that Corbett violated the students’ First Amendment rights–not the right to speak freely but the right of the people to be free from a government-established religion. Selna wrote –and the 9th Circuit agreed–that hostility to religion is equal to proselytizing a religion.
Among the many comments Farnan had submitted to Selna, the district judge found the statement that creationism is “religious, superstitious nonsense” to be unconstitutional.
However, Friday’s ruling from the appellate court vacates Selna’s decision about that statement.
“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,” the court wrote.
Farnan’s lawyer said the 9th Circuit basically “punted” its decision.
Tyler believes that had the case been about a Christian teacher communicating his religious viewpoints, the court would have been quick to make a stand about the constitutionality of such comments. The same should be true for comments that demonstrate an open hostility toward religion.
Instead, the court created a convenient “Catch-22,” where Corbett is off the hook because there have been no previous cases to guide his behavior.
“They had the opportunity to clarify the law, to rule on an area of law that they said is unclear,” Tyler said.
Chemerinsky rejected the idea that the ruling creates a “Catch-22” for teachers. While the ruling upholds a teacher cannot be individually targeted for this kind of lawsuit, perhaps a lawsuit could be drawn against a school district as a whole if it tolerated unconstitutional speech.
“There may be other procedural vehicles for getting this settled,” Chemerinsky said. As for Corbett, Chemerinsky said, “we didn’t know when Dr. Corbett was in that classroom where that line is drawn.”
Ironically, Tyler said, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in late May that would have allowed the 9th Circuit in the Corbett case to establish the constitutionality of his comments rather than leave all teachers “permanently in limbo.”
While the justices decided the case too late to be included in oral arguments in February, the 9th Circuit could have clearly referenced the case in its ruling today.
“Common sense dictates that Dr. Corbett’s scene he created in his classroom was hostile,” he said.