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US judges rule for teacher who called creationism 'superstitious nonsense'

Did hostile classroom remarks about creationism violate the mandate that the government remain neutral on religion? An appeals court says the teacher has immunity from being sued.

By Staff writer / August 19, 2011



A public high school teacher in California may not be sued for making hostile remarks about religion in his classroom, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.

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The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a student charging that the teacher’s hostile remarks about creationism and religious faith violated a First Amendment mandate that the government remain neutral in matters of religion.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the lawsuit against an advanced placement history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo must be thrown out of court because the teacher was entitled to immunity.

The San Francisco-based appeals court said the teacher was entitled to immunity because it was not clearly established in the law that a teacher’s expression of hostility to certain religious beliefs in a public school classroom would violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

The establishment clause requires that officials act with neither favor nor disfavor toward religion and the religious.

“We are aware of no prior case holding that a teacher violated the establishment clause by appearing critical of religion during class lectures, nor any case with sufficiently similar facts to give a teacher ‘fair warning’ that such conduct was unlawful,” Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the court.

As part of its ruling, the appeals court vacated a district judge’s earlier decision that the teacher, Dr. James Corbett, violated the establishment clause in a comment he made in class that creationism was “superstitious nonsense.”

The appeals court side-stepped the question of whether Dr. Corbett’s comment on creationism and other derogatory remarks about religious faith were unconstitutional. Instead, the panel concluded that since Corbett was entitled to qualified immunity it was not necessary for the appeals court to determine whether his comments actually violated the Constitution.

“In broaching controversial issues like religion, teachers must be sensitive to students’ personal beliefs and take care not to abuse their positions of authority,” Judge Fisher wrote.

“But teachers must also be given leeway to challenge students to foster critical thinking skills and develop their analytical abilities,” he said. “This balance is hard to achieve, and we must be careful not to curb intellectual freedom by imposing dogmatic restrictions.”

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