What Would Jesus Do?

James Corbett
Dr. James Corbett

A high school history teacher is immune from a 15-year-old former student’s lawsuit accusing the instructor of making derogatory remarks about Christianity in violation of the student’s First Amendment rights. 

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the claims by Chad Farnan that his teacher Dr. James Corbett violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by comments Farnan found critical of Christianity.  Farnan, while a sophomore at Capistrano Valley High school in Southern California, took Corbett’s advanced placement European History class.  Farnan describes himself as a Christian who believes in creationism.

Corbett, who has taught more than 20 years, also describes himself as a Christian.

Judge Raymond Fisher said there has “never been any prior reported case holding that a teacher violated the Constitution under comparable circumstances.”

The panel held that Corbett was immune from the lawsuit because the law was not clearly established at the time of the events, but the panel declined to rule on the constitutionality of the teacher’s comments.  That leaves the issue an open question.

What was it that got under young Farnan’s skin?

During a discussion of Joseph II’s reforms granting greater rights to Serfs, Corbett noted Joseph made a tactical error in imposing religious reforms the Serfs did not support, even though they would have gained greater personal freedoms.

Corbett said:

“How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest?  Religion.  You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach.  No problem… [W]hen you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”

Fischer noted that neither Farnan nor his parents ever discussed their concerns with Corbett or other school officials.  Instead, Farnan withdrew from the class after the first semester and filed the lawsuit.  He has since graduated from high school and attends college.

In 2007, Corbett sent letters to the families of students, including Farnan, explaining how his class would operate and describing it as “quite provocative.”  He said his goal “is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents.”

He also said students may offer “any perspective without concern that anything they say will impact either my attitude toward them or their grades.  I encourage a full range of views,” he said. 

Case:  C.F. v. Capistrano Unified School District, No. 09-56689

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