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.
Sounds like you got tooled by some godpeople. And it sounds like you had an attorney who didn’t have a stomach for your brand of crap.
Both of which pretty much suck.
You are the “perfect victim”. Religion in public schools has no place. You chose to shoot your mouth off, hired a lousy attorney and then got whooped. Go teach in Iran.
A request for summary judgment doesn’t prevent further legal defense, it just means that if one of the parties can’t win even if everything that’s disputed is taken in their favor they lose right there. After a motion for summary judgment is denied, the suit continues with all the challenges to evidence, countersuits for illegal recording, etc.
A few days ago I wrote a blog titled “the right isn’t wrong, just stupid.” Clearly, i was overstated the case. Sometimes their positions are right and sometimes wrong. But at least I was almost right, they are always stupid.
Reason does not preclude spirituality. That Washington was no Christian is true (i’ve heard that he refused last rites), but it’s also true that he dedicated the capitol dressed in full Masonic regalia. Given the old Masonic beliefs and connections to wisdom traditions running all the way back to ancient Egypt, i’m not sure we can say that he was an atheist.
Regardless, religion has no place in schools. I’m not sure that outright denigration of other people’s beliefs has any place either when it comes from an authority figure. So if the idea is to teach kids to question, perhaps a better route would be to ask for Christian students to prove what they proclaim to be truth.
And if all else fails, paraphrase Gandhi. Christians hate being told that you love Christ and hate Christians.
I won’t bother anyone with my questioning of people who believe in Reason like it’s a god. I love your Reason but am not overly fond of Rationalists.
Adding to response #3, a motion for summary judgment also does not mean that you no longer get to dispute the facts of the case, You accept the facts of the other side just for the argument of the motion, i.e. ‘for the sake of argument, even if we accept his facts as true, he cannot win.’ If the judge denies a motion for summary judgment, it does not dismiss the case.
K: FYI, the judge granted the summary motion and dismissed all their claims except one. On that one he found that I could not have known when the words were said that they were actionable, so he leveled no penalty. Without a finding against me, as I understand it, the case was effectively over, except that the Advocates appealed which gave us the chance to cross appeal. In an appeal, of course, only the law is argued, not the facts, so there never was an opportunity to set the record straight from my point of view.
LEX: Please read the judge’s decision. He made clear that I stuck to the curriculum; that all my comments were related to the curriculum and found on the one statement, which denigrates John Peloza’s teaching, not anyone’s religion. BTW, if you can find a way to teach a course in which the FIRST principle outlined by the College Board in advice to teachers is a reference to religious conflict, I’d be interested in knowing, but I suspect kids in such a course would fail the AP Exam. My pass rate last year was 90% (national average is 60%). Also, BTW, I agree with you that there is no room for a teacher who denigrates a student’s religion. I’ve never done that.
“Reason does not preclude spirituality.”
No, it makes it unnecessary and pointless.
Another frivolous lawsuit in the name of someone’s imaginary friend.
Sorry Mr Corbett, but your longwinded whine fest here comes off as just that, a lot of whining.
1) Who’s fault is it for choosing the wrong legal strategy? Come on now, it’s pretty easy. You took bad advise, didn’t think it thru, chose poorly and then lost. And now it’s everyone’s fault except yours? Try accepting a little of the responsibility you should be instilling in your students.
2) You really think the phrase “propagandize kids with his ‘superstitious religious nonsense’” is inocuous? Really? Let’s break it down. “Propagandzie” = ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause. Although I’m sure the usually accepted connotation of propagandize = lies was the intent. “Supersitious” = swayed by a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation. “Nonsense” = words or language having no meaning or conveying no intelligible ideas, or language, conduct, or an idea that is absurd and contrary to good sense”. Amazingly, nothing at all mentioned of you own personal definition of “not rational”. So I ask you, as a person of reasonable mind, if you take your statement at it’s basic definitions, how you could not possibly think it was at least a little insulting to religious belief?
In the end, perhaps you should simply quit whining about the fact you screwed up. And maybe just maybe you should DO YOUR JOB of presenting the facts, the arguments of both sides without your biased editorializing, and let the kids themselves decide what they believe.
Mike L – It’s entirely possible that Corbett screwed up and took bad advice, and so I have nothing to say on that. However, your statement that he should do his job “presenting the facts, the arguments of both sides” confuses a critical point.
Science is not faith, and faith has no place in a science classroom. Faith is a firm belief in something even if there is no proof of it, while science is entirely based on proof. There is no “both sides” when it comes to the science of evolution, natural selection, geology, etc.
An interesting and somewhat disturbing case. As I understand the logic of the plaintiff, he was damaged because your belief system differed from his own, and you expressed your views to him verbally. Quite odd.
I would think that unless you prohibited or otherwise interfered with his actual practice of religion that damages would be very difficult to prove. The entire point of learning is to discuss alternate points of view.
Life will prove difficult for Chad in just a few years. He may will find himself at a cocktail party where the rhetoric is a bit more heated. Maybe Chad can file suit for hurt feelings at the business mixer. Good grief!
How can you blame someone for taking bad advice when he was consulting an expert in an area where he had little or no expertise and was not qualified to judge. That’s what experts are for – to give advice.
While the summary judgment was against you, it may actually help others.. If it was truly found to be “unconstitutionally” wrong to attack another’s religious beliefs & practices, the ridiculous right has just opened itself for a slew of lawsuits.. from the Islamic community.. Remember, in law it matters not why a decision was made, simply that the decision _was_ made.. this would not be the first time a bad decision had unintended consequences down-the-line.. I, for one, can hardly wait.. 😉
Elsewhere, you say “Without a finding against me,..”.. As I see it, there _was_ a finding against you, simply no penalty.. If I have mis-read, Damn!, there goes my previously stated dream.. 😉 OTOH, different fingers.. If there was a finding.. (sung to the tune of “white christmas”), I’m dreaming of an ironic backlash.. 😉
Mike L. According to your own definitions, the phrase “propagandize kids with his ‘superstitious religious nonsense’” is accurate..
“Propagandzie” (sic) = ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause. – Yup, normal ridiculous right practice..
“Supersitious” (sic) = swayed by a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation. – Pretty apt, I’d say..
“Nonsense” = .. language, conduct, or an idea that is absurd and contrary to good sense”
seems pretty clear to me.. in line with your definitions, the good teachers statement was correct.. as for ‘insulting’, that is in the mind, or lack, there-of, of the beholder.. a wise man is never insulted.. & nothing is an insult to a fool.. further, if there’s any whining here, it is only your own.. Ah, the ridiculous right.. they’re not totally useless.. they can always serve as a really good, bad example.. 😉
Turkeyfish, not to pick on you, but to clarify a point.. It is religion that reason makes unnecessary & pointless, not spirituality.. which is a very different thing.. Spirituality is more a recognition that life is other than simply the sum of the chemicals.. while religion is an attempt to prevent people from observing & thinking on that latter observation – by means of an irrational ‘fill-in’, namely, ‘faith’ – AKA, ‘no frontier’.. sorry Gene.. 😉