Farnan's lawyer, Jennifer Monk, who works for a not-for-profit Christian law firm, Advocates for Faith and Freedom, told the Guardian yesterday that Farnan's victory was the first of its kind, proving that the establishment clause applied equally to the disapproval of religion as it did to the promotion of religion.
"It is the first case of its kind where a court has held a teacher responsible for the disapproval of Christianity. It's common for lawsuits to be brought against teachers promoting religion. In general, for years, religion has been taken out of the classroom. I don't agree with that, but if it's going to be taken out, at the very minimum you can't go to the other extreme.
"The [Farnan] family is excited, it's a courageous stand. There were people who were very supportive and there were people who didn't agree with his stand."
Farnan and his family had tried to sue James Corbett for a wide variety of comments made over the course of 18 months. The judge, though, ruled that all rest of them were legitimate comments made in the context of teaching European history — they might not be positions which conservative Christians agree with, but that didn't make them unconstitutional. I wish I could say that I was shocked to hear about conservative Christians treating anything and everything they disagreed with as personal attacks and religious persecution.
In his ruling, the judge said he tried to balance the rights of both parties. "The court's ruling reflects the constitutionally permissible need for expansive discussion, even if a given topic may be offensive to a particular religion," he said. "The decision also reflects that there are boundaries. The ruling protects Farnan, but also protects teachers like Corbett in carrying out their teaching duties."
He said the case reflected the tension between the constitutional rights of a student and the demands of higher education, as well as the tension between Farnan's religious beliefs and the need for government, especially schools, to carry out their duties "free of the strictures of any particular religious or philosophical belief system".
Derogatory, disparaging, and belittling statements about religion are indeed forbidden for public school teachers. We don't see these cases very often because it simply isn't happen so often. The religious demographics of public school teachers probably aren't very far off from the religious demographics of society in general, which means that almost all teachers are religious at the very least and probably Christian. How many Christians are going to say belittling things about Christianity?
Far more common are attempts by teachers to promote religion generally or Christianity in particular — again, because that's a common behavior among religious believers in society generally. Therefore, we naturally see far more lawsuits trying to stop teachers from promoting religion than we see lawsuits trying to stop teachers from disparaging religion.
Nevertheless, it's important to remember that both are equally forbidden. When Christians express bewilderment that it might be illegal for people in positions of public authority to promote their religion, it might help to remind them that people in these same positions are equally forbidden from disparaging others' religion. They are two sides of the same coin; you can't have one without the other.
I still wonder, though, how many conservative Christians are pleased that a court has ruled that creationism is basically a Christian doctrine. The rest of us have always known that, but supporters of creationism usually go out of their way to deny it. Being a Christian doctrine or ideology gives it protection under the First Amendment, but bars it from public school classrooms. Maybe James Corbett should say in his next class that "Intelligent Design is superstitious nonsense." What would happen?