Revolution #169, June 28, 2009

Orange County Ruling:

Orange County Ruling: An Attack on Teaching Evolution

A US District Court judge in California issued a dangerous ruling on May 1, 2009, in a civil lawsuit against a California public school history teacher. The teacher, James Corbett, was sued by Christian fundamentalists. Corbett is well known in Capistrano Valley High in Orange County, California, as a teacher who stimulated critical thinking and who at times made pungent critiques of religion, creationism, and traditional morality. The fundamentalist lawsuit cited statements they claimed Corbett made in classrooms, and argued that Corbett was in violation of the separation of church and state.

The ruling by Judge James Serna upheld one of their claims—that when Corbett said creationism was “religious, superstitious nonsense”, this violated U.S. Constitutional provisions that say that a teacher as an agent of the state cannot either support or oppose religion.

Corbett wrote in an on-line editorial after the verdict: “Every teacher in California (this was a federal case after all) now works with the knowledge that any student, at any time, and in violation of California law, can sneak a tape recorder into a classroom, record the teacher and use an out-of-context five second comment as a bludgeon to threaten, to intimidate and, ultimately, to destroy the teacher’s career and good name.”

Judge Serna’s ruling undercuts many previous court decisions supporting the teaching of evolution. Teachers trying to stimulate critical thinking and even just teach science should not have to carefully calculate whether they will violate the backward and reactionary political, religious and moral strictures of Christian fundamentalists before opening their mouths.  As Corbett put it in his editorial, “Every teacher who makes a student think takes the risk that he will be attacked by parents and others who see themselves as guardians of cherished political and religious myth. The teachers who take that risk should be rewarded, not punished.”

Creationism IS religious, superstitious nonsense.

To sort out the issues involved in this lawsuit and verdict, consider the statement that Judge Serna considered to go over the bounds: that “creationism is religious, superstitious nonsense.” There have been a series of major court decisions that have ruled that in terms of the law, creationism in all its many forms is a religious expression, and that it is not science.  More fundamentally, in terms of the truth, evolution has been firmly established over the 150 years since Darwin first brought it forward and it has been shown to be true from many, many different lines of scientific investigation, and never shown to be false. Creationism, including in its recent mutation as intelligent design, often makes contorted claims to be based on science but in all its forms creationism actually is about subverting science and the scientific method in order to strengthen the hold of religion over the minds of the people.

In this country today, creationism is a crucial part of the ideological arsenal of Christian fascist forces which continue to be powerful, dangerous and backed by the government at the highest level.

An attack on critical thinking

James Corbett has been a popular teacher for many years in Capistrano Valley High School in Orange County, California. When the fundamentalist lawsuit was initially filed in December of 2007, the Orange County Register wrote:

“To an almost continuous stream of blaring car horns and cheering, more than 200 Capistrano Valley High School students and alumni rallied outside their school Wednesday morning to show support for embattled history teacher James Corbett, who is being sued by one of his students for making remarks about Christianity and traditional Christian viewpoints in class. Under an early morning drizzle, the protestors lined both sides of Via Escolar outside the Mission Viejo high school, holding up handmade posters with messages that read ‘Honk 4 Corbett,’ ‘Keep Corbett’ and ‘Alums for Corbett.’”

And the Orange County Register noted on May 1, 2009, after Judge Selna’s verdict that: “Corbett is known among his students for being intentionally provocative, taking them out of their comfort zone and asking them to question long-held convictions.

But students say Corbett's teaching style encourages them to think critically and to speak up in defense of opposite viewpoints…”

Corbett was targeted in the lawsuit not only for his comments on creationism, but for a range of comments he was accused of making on important and complex issues, including things like "From conservative Christians in this country to Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan … it's stunning how vitally interested they are in controlling women", as well as the quote most highlighted in the early press accounts of the case, “when you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.” (These quotes are from the judge’s ruling—Corbett’s lawyers made clear that they do not agree that Corbett said all the things the Christian fundamentalists said he did, particularly that in many cases they were taken out of context.)

Chad Farnan, the student who brought the lawsuit against Corbett, secretly took a tape recorder into Corbett’s class and recorded lectures and discussion. Farnan and his family worked with “Advocates for Faith and Freedom”, a legal organization which specializes in lawsuits advancing Christian fundamentalist causes. As Corbett noted in an interview, they “have defended the right of a pharmacist on religious grounds to not sell birth control to an unmarried woman. They have defended the right of a doctor to refuse reproductive assistance to a lesbian. They have defended the right of a boy to wear a T-shirt that was offensive to homosexuals.” The tape recordings that Farnan made in Corbett’s class were then transcribed, gone over by the lawyers with a fine tooth comb, and distilled into about twenty different comments, some out of context and distorted, which were used as the basis for the lawsuit.

Farnan was invited onto Bill O’Reilly’s right wing talk show, and the case became known in Christian fundamentalist circles nationally. Corbett reportedly received death threats by phone, but he also received 500 letters from former students, all but one a letter of support.

The Fundamentalist Lawsuit

Jennifer Monk, Farnan’s attorney and general counsel for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, said “It is constitutionally impermissible for Dr. Corbett to use his classroom as a bully pulpit to display his personal disapproval of Christianity.”  Actually, the real thrust of the fundamentalist lawsuit was the claim that the U.S. Constitution guarantees Farnan a right not to hear his particular religious beliefs subjected to critical analysis in the public schools. 

There is monumental hypocrisy involved in the Christian fascist forces invoking the separation of church and state. They not only have an ultimately theocratic agenda, but have continuously worked for decades to utilize the government at every level, including state and local governments, to launch concerted attacks on evolution, and to bring religion into classrooms. A new twist in this case is to force religion down people’s throats - under the legal rubric of the separation of church and state!

Just how secular the government of this Christian country has been has varied over time and is conditioned and framed by what serves the needs and interests of those in power at any time. History is full of such things as the insertion of the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance that school children are required to recite. This is a naked violation of the separation of church and state. The "under God" clause was originally inserted to serve an ideological agenda at a time when the world communist revolution held state power in major countries and was challenging U.S. imperialism around the world; the Pledge, with its allegiance to “one nation, under God” was an important part of uniting the people ideologically behind the American imperialist empire and against its atheist challengers—compelling students, in school, to recite their allegiance to God and country.

And the U.S. Supreme Court ruled only a few years ago that the Pledge with the phrase “under God” was still constitutional today.

This makes it all the more dangerous that Judge Serna concluded that Corbett had violated the separation of church and state: “Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is ‘superstitious nonsense.’ The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context.”

Some commentators pointed out that Serna’s decision further undermines teachers who were already under attack for teaching evolution and critical thought. This leaves them looking over their shoulder fearing lawsuits if they dare to make critical comments about religion—even if they feel justified in what they say based on past federal court decisions. And some commentators made the further point that if you follow the logic of Serna’s decision, it throws up whether you can even teach that evolution is true and creationism is not in public schools—as this, it would seem from Serna’s position, would be criticizing religion.

Corbett has said he has not decided on whether he will appeal Serna’s decision. Politically, morally, intellectually, what is right and wrong is very clear here—evolution is true, and teachers should teach it, and creationism is not true, and teachers should criticize it.  This case puts a spotlight on the way that this system assaults critical thinking, science, and evolution in particular—and points to how the legal doctrine of the separation of church and state offers at best only very partial and limited protection for critical thinking. Right now, teachers who dare to provoke critical thinking about anything - and particularly religion - run the risk of punishment by the state as well as Christian fundamentalist attacks. This ruling heightens the importance and urgency of the fight to defend critical thinking and the teaching of evolution.

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