by James Corbett
The facts of my case are fairly simple. Chad Farnan, a 15-year-old self-described Christian fundamentalist student in my Advanced Placement European History class, sued me for a “pattern” of statements unconstitutionally hostile to religion. His claim was based on hours of illegal and surreptitious recordings.
In my attorney’s opinion, the law was on our side, so he advised me to seek a summary judgment. I now believe that was a critical error because when a defendant requests a summary judgment rather than a jury trial, the law requires that all the facts presented by the plaintiff be accepted as truthful. No fact may be disputed, only the law. My attorney believed a fair application of the Lemon test would turn in my favor, but the test fails in a case such as mine both as a matter of law and of logic. Had I gone to court, I could easily have demonstrated that Chad and his mother are both liars, that they edited the recordings, and that Chad had no “damages.” Their claimed “damage” was based on Chad’s lie that his counselor told him AP Euro was “required” to get into the schools of his choice (UCLA and USC), and so by creating a “hostile atmosphere” which “forced” him to drop the class, Chad claimed I damaged his chances of matriculation at those schools. The counselor told Chad no such thing.
As for the recorded “evidence” against me, the recordings had no time or date signature. Further, Chad admitted under oath that he erased the original recordings after they were transferred to his computer, which would have prevented the recordings from being verified. In short, using a recording made in violation of California law, Chad or his attorneys—the so-called Advocates for Faith and Freedom—pulled out-of-context quotes made over an indeterminate number of days and used them as the gravamen of his suit. Had I not requested a summary judgment, Chad’s motives and actions (not to mention the motives and actions of the Advocates for Faith and Freedom) could have been questioned in court. I believe they would have been found wanting.
In his summary judgment, Federal District Court Judge James V. Selna simply applied the Lemon test, but his application of the test in my case makes the law an ass, an idiot (apologies to Charles Dickens). Professor Mark S. Scarberry from Pepperdine School of Law (I appeared with him on radio’s Ledger on the Law) said that there is a constitutional difference between criticizing someone’s belief and someone’s practice. He offered that religious practices that are illegal—such as human sacrifice—may be attacked, but belief may not. That distinction, he opined, was at the core of my violation. I suspect Judge Selna agrees with Professor Scarberry, but such distinction is absurd. Belief cannot be separated from practice.
By Selna’s Lemon logic, I could criticize voodoo for animal cruelty in disemboweling a chicken, but not call the belief in entrail prophecy “superstition” or “nonsense.” By “Lemon” logic, the fundamentalist Muslim belief in jihad would be protected from criticism by a government actor as long as no crime was committed. How many government actors, including U.S. presidents, have criticized radical mullahs for their belief that the Koran demands death for infidels? I doubt any were in violation of the Constitution. Certainly, no legal scholar would argue that Christian beliefs have a special, and protected, place in constitutional law. So it may be upsetting to Christian fundamentalists for a teacher to say, for example, that a talking donkey is ridiculous, but should he be open to a lawsuit? I feel like I’m the donkey Chad and the Advocates are riding for fun and profit, but because I requested a summary judgment I—unlike biblical Balaam’s donkey—have no voice, “magic” or legal.
Judge Selna faulted me for a single phrase, a reference to creationism as “superstitious, religious nonsense.” While I dispute his view that my words referred to biblical creation (my reference was to a religious fundamentalist public school biology teacher who was teaching “young earth creationism”), my use of the word “superstition” was fair and accurate. It was also a fair and accurate description of biblical creation. Regardless of the interpretation of Lemon, as a matter of fact, one man’s religion is another’s “superstition.” Must a government actor respect all creation stories, no matter how absurd? Consider the New Guinea cargo cultists: should we respect their belief that God is a B-29 bomber? As for my use of the word “nonsense,” it simply means “not rational,” and religion is certainly not based on rationality, but on faith. That is its strength. In my view, those who demand religion comport with reason are doing damage both to religion and to reason.
Most who review the one-sided record accept that Chad was offended, but there are other possibilities as to why the suit was filed. First, it may be that I did violate his rights, and he was justified in filing. Then again, Chad, who admitted under oath that he didn’t do his homework, might have claimed injury to avoid the consequences of his lack of work ethic. It may also be that Chad’s attorneys, the Advocates for Faith and Freedom, filed the suit so they could use it to beg for money from the faithful. In support of the latter view is the fact that neither Chad nor the Advocates made any attempt to resolve the case before filing the suit. In fact, the first I heard of Chad’s complaint was the day the Advocates came to my school, with reporters in tow, and dropped the lawsuit on the principal’s desk. Within two days they were on Bill O’Reilly’s Factor, begging for money to fund their complaint. Within a week, Chad and the Advocates had appeared on a half-dozen conservative shows looking for donations to continue their “legal ministry.” Now Chad speaks at fundraisers for conservative Republican candidates. Finally, it may also be that Chad’s parents were motivated to file because they like the limelight. Considering I wrote a letter to all my students (Chad and his mother admitted they received the letter) explaining that my lectures would be “very provocative,” and I provided students and parents with my home phone number in case they had a complaint, the Farmans’ failure to contact me may indicate they were more interested in a lawsuit than in Chad’s education.
Setting aside the possible financial payoff as a motive for filing the suit, and accepting that Chad or (more likely) his parents were actually offended, it may be that they were less offended by my remarks than they were that Chad and his friends began to question the narrow-minded mythological reality promoted by the anti-intellectual Christian right. Questioning the authority of the cultural myths which provide the foundation of conservatism is profoundly upsetting to the right. Tell a right-winger that Ronald Reagan raised taxes and rarely went to church and watch while they twist truth and logic into an inedible conservative pretzel and serve it without a hint of shame.
In every society, accepted myth is created by those in power to justify their cultural and political dominance. They guard against questioning myths precisely because they recognize such questioning threatens their power base. Mrs. Farnan, Chad’s mother, inadvertently revealed her fear that Chad and others might be led to question the unquestionable when she related a story about her son’s first day in class. Chad had come home, she said, and told her that I’d stated that George Washington was never known to have prayed in public. Mrs. Farnan said she knew right away something was “wrong” because “we have a picture of George Washington praying in our home.” Clearly, Mrs. Farnan’s Palinesque logic leaves no room to doubt Washington’s muster into the Christian right’s mythological army. Teachers who “refudiate” the veracity of that story are dangerously “liberal” cultural and political “traitors.” That her loopy logic was wrong is irrelevant to her and her supporters. I think Mrs. Farnan feared that Chad and his classmates might start thinking, which could lead them to some unapproved “truth,” and so put them on the road to perdition. She and the rest of the Christian right want nothing less than obedience to their concepts of cultural, political, not to mention biblical, reality.
There is a price to pay for making kids wonder, criticize and question… but fail to do that job and you’re not a teacher, you’re a high priest protecting “holy” myths by demanding obedience, twisting logic and closing minds. I’m honored that Chad, Mrs. Farnan and the Advocates for Faith and Freedom sued me. That they did so demonstrates that they understand just how dangerous my teaching is to their unquestioned dogma. For a teacher, there can be no higher tribute than to have your teaching labeled “dangerous.” I suspect the light of reason frightens Mrs. Farnan and Chad much as it did Martin Luther, who wrote, “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”
For my part, I believe that a God who would give children brains wouldn’t be disappointed if the recipients used them to think. Chad’s parents should not fear the influence of a teacher, even one who makes him think; if they directed him to the right path, when he is older, he will not leave it. (cf. Prov. 22:6)
Dr. James “Jesus Glasses” Corbett is a teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, California. He writes: “I’ve been sued twice by Christian fundamentalists. First by John Peloza, a biology teacher at my school who was teaching young earth creationism. He objected to the editor of the student newspaper (I was adviser) claiming he taught religion, not science, and sued for libel. The case was tossed out, of course, as a frivolous lawsuit filed in bad faith. The second suit is the current one. Ironically, I was sued for telling a story about the Peloza case in which I related my words when I was told by the school’s defense attorney that all those being sued (there were 15) should say nothing until the case was resolved. A student in Chad’s class asked what happened and I said that “at that point I told the attorney that I would not allow John Peloza to propagandize kids with his ‘superstitious religious nonsense’ without someone to counter his views. That phrase was the only one the District Judge (Selna) found to be unconstitutionally hostile to religion.