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Austin Cline

Criticism of Creationism Violates U.S. Constitution

By May 9, 2009

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In Capistrano Valley high school, European history teacher James Corbett described creationism as "superstitious nonsense" and a judge has ruled that this statement violated the Constitution because it qualified as "derogatory, disparaging and belittling regarding religion and Christianity in particular." The Christian student Chad Farnan and his family are delighted at this ruling, but should they be? After all, they've helped establish legally that creationism is not just a religious doctrine, but a Christian doctrine in particular.
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."

Source: Guardian

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?

May 9, 2009 at 12:41 pm
(1) karlajkitty says:

Excellent – give them enough rope and eventually…

May 9, 2009 at 1:00 pm
(2) z says:

The will never have another legal leg to stand on. The plaintiff’s argued that the statements were derogatory to christianity and the judge ruled that they were.

The comments ruled against were derogatory to creationism, i.e. “Intelligent design”.

How can they possible now argue, in any court, that it is “science” that they are trying to promote and not a ideology?

They just got their equal time. Bye.

May 9, 2009 at 1:43 pm
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hey, at least the court said that creationism is religious speech, not science. So if it’s religious, we can keep it out of science class, yes? But if it’s not religious then we can say snarky things about it.

Some people need to make up their minds.

May 9, 2009 at 4:45 pm
(4) Jim says:

This thing that bothers me about this is that I can see some teacher (or other government employee) unknowingly saying something that is interpreted as derogatory, offensive to someone’s religion. It could even be a religion that person never heard of.

These are land minds of hurt feelings in the meadow of free speech.

May 9, 2009 at 7:08 pm
(5) James Corbett says:

Teacher at Capistrano Valley High School. A federal judge ruled recently that Corbett violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause by disparaging Creationism.
Comments 0 | Recommend 0

Over 2,000 years ago Socrates faced a court for refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, importing strange divinities and corrupting the young. The judges sent Socrates to his death. He accepted the sentence of the court and committed suicide by drinking a cup of hemlock.

The only virtue for Socrates was “knowledge.” He reached it by questioning the most deeply held beliefs of his students by which I mean all of Athens and ultimately all of us. What troubled the Athenians about Socrates, however, was not listed in the charges. His crime was that he prompted people to think.

His provocations exposed the Athenians’ shallowness of belief and mindless deference to myth. Socrates was judged because he was successful in provoking his students “examine their lives.” [his words]Those who guard the myths must try and strike down any who teach young people to think and question, because myths often shrink in the light of reason, draining power from those in authority who benefit from belief.

There are thousands of teachers who agree with Socrates that, “[t]he unexamined life is not worth living.” 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 willing to take that risk should be rewarded, not punished. After the verdict, the Athenian court asked Socrates what his punishment should be. He responded that he should get free meals at the Pyrataneum, a celebration hall for Olympian athletes. Socrates went on to explain that those who passed judgment were not harming him, but rather themselves. He said, by killing him they corrupted their own souls and revealed the weakness of their own belief. A true believer does not fear that a few questions can undo years of parental teaching. Those who would “protect” students from self-examination have little faith and great fear.

Chad Farnan, the boy who sued me, was an average student, who admitted under oath that he did not do the required reading for the class. If Chad’s lawyers, the “Advocates for Faith and Freedom,” and his parents were actually concerned with protecting the boy, why didn’t they simply come to me and ask me to explain my comments? Neither they nor the Farmans ever expressed concerns to me nor to any administrators before they came to school with attorneys and reporters in tow to drop a lawsuit on the desk of Tom Ressler, our principal. Perhaps more importantly, the Farmans were aware long before Chad took my class that I go out of my way to be provocative. Every year in July, I send a letter home to students who have signed up for my class. Chad admitted under oath that he received that letter. The letter says, in part:

“Most days we will spend a few minutes (sometimes more) at the beginning of class discussing current events from either The Orange County Register or the L.A. Times. I may also use material from a variety of news Web sites. Discussion will be quite provocative, and focus on the ‘lessons’ of history. My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents. 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.”

I included my home phone number and e-mail address in that letter and encouraged parents to contact me if they had any concerns. Chad admitted under oath that my lectures prompted many discussions with his parents. I might add, that in 20 years in the CUSD, I have never had a complaint filed against me, save this one.

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.

Challenging myths is dangerous, but it is the essence of getting students to think for themselves. The Athenian judges, like some parents today, would have students accept myth without question, because myth is the foundation of their parental, political and/or religious authority. Ms. Farnan objected to my challenging the myth of the Puritans as a pious people who fled religious intolerance to found America. As Ms. Farnan sees them, the Puritans are quaint, pious people with buckles on their hats and shoes as portrayed in the national mythology, but they may also be seen as intolerant, misogynistic and homophobic religious bigots who hanged Mary Dyer, a Quaker girl, for preaching something other than Puritan doctrine and several other women for the crime of “witchcraft.”

Questioning may make students and parents uncomfortable, but students have a right to think for themselves. It is not “bullying” to demand that students think.

Ms. Farnan also objected to my challenge of another national myth, that the United States was founded as a “Christian” nation. There is some truth to that notion, but embracing that myth and excluding other views can be used to unfairly gain political advantage. Another view of the founding fathers can be seen in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, the man who authored the Declaration of Independence. He translated the Bible. The last words of the Jeffersonian Bible might shake Ms. Farnan’s faith: “There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” There was no resurrection for Jefferson, he rejected all the Biblical miracles, as contrary to reason. I doubt with his view would be called “Christian” by Ms. Farnan or anyone else. James Madison, who penned the Constitution, warned, “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and units it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect.” If Jefferson and Madison were alive today, I doubt they could be elected. The guardians of the national myth would rise up and smite them as unbelievers.

We respect the guardians and their myths at our peril because history (and science) changes and improves with knowledge, but the same force damages myth based on belief. That’s why the guardians fear the knowledge begat by questioning. For them, “knowledge” is gained in rote memory of approved truth. They chant in the school, temple, church or mosque and fool themselves into thinking they’ve acquired knowledge.

All those teachers, and there are many of us, who understand the value of questioning sacred myths serve this nation as faithfully as other patriots. What is true will be strengthened. What is false will be destroyed, as it should be. Such teachers should be honored. There is no greater gift teachers can give to students than to teach them to think. Don’t sue them for it. Try taking them to the Pyrataneum for dinner, conversation and a cup of coffee, no hemlock.

May 9, 2009 at 10:31 pm
(6) Zayla says:

“All those teachers, and there are many of us, who understand the value of questioning sacred myths serve this nation as faithfully as other patriots. What is true will be strengthened. What is false will be destroyed, as it should be. Such teachers should be honored. There is no greater gift teachers can give to students than to teach them to think. Don’t sue them for it. Try taking them to the Pyrataneum for dinner, conversation and a cup of coffee, no hemlock”.

Yes, teach them to think philosophically in philosophy class, not science. Don’t preach ideology in history or science or anywhere in school, except in religion, where it belongs and is wanted.

No, actually there is not truth in the United States being founded as a “christian nation”, but that is something that students should not learn in a public history class or a science class. Additionally, at least there is room for debate and civil discourse in that discussion, as opposed to religious ideology.

Don’t preach in my school and I won’t think in your church.

May 9, 2009 at 11:53 pm
(7) ChuckA says:

^ Thanks, James, for your articulate and highly informative comment!
Just from those few lesser known, but highly relevant, historical tidbits you cite; I’d say your students were fortunate, indeed, to have had such a highly informed, thought provoking teacher.
Teaching students to think…critically…ranks, in my opinion, as one of the greatest ‘gifts’ that a teacher can bestow on any student.
It would seem, there are far too few teachers of your caliber; especially in the earliest years of a child’s education, when actually learning to think about and question any and all “sacred” assumptions REALLY needs to be learned. Way too much emphasis is routinely given to the unquestioned “Believing” of so-called facts; obviously to keep everyone in line, as in…”don’t rock the boat”.
All the best to you, whatever happens. And, I don’t think I’m totally off base here expressing a somewhat amended cliche…
“Our (noblest, atheist) thoughts (sans prayers!) are (metaphorically) with you”!
[Or, perhaps, somewhat Catholic-like]:
“Go in Peace…the Mass (hysteria) is ended!…? ;)

Seriously…for my part, at least…come back and join in the comments, often.

May 10, 2009 at 2:40 am
(8) Blunderov says:

In the Roman Dutch legal tradition it is considered a complete defence to accusations of libel or slander to succesfully argue that the statement in contention is true. I’m amazed that this is apparently not so in the James Corbett case.

How can any court rule that a true statement , under whatever circumstances and in whatever context, is not allowed? It flies quite obviously in the face of reason to do so.

Christianity is superstitious nonsense. Its subject matter deals with the supernatural which is, by definition, not accessible to reason or falsification.

May 10, 2009 at 1:47 pm
(9) fauxrs says:

No, actually there is not truth in the United States being founded as a “christian nation”, but that is something that students should not learn in a public history class

Whoa! Facts about the founding of the United States is something that students should not learn in a history class???? incredible

May 10, 2009 at 2:33 pm
(10) BEX says:

Mr. Corbett…that family is obviously very cowardly. I’m sorry they put you through this nonsense.

May 11, 2009 at 7:44 am
(11) Zayla says:


Historical facts, obviously, but not proselytizing which is what takes place when the notion of “christian nation” comes up, as was the gist of this article, i.e., teachers ideological views as opposed to fact based teaching.

Sorry I wasn’t more clear in the statement in context of the article we were discussing at the top of the pages. (See top of page)

May 11, 2009 at 2:35 pm
(12) Rob Miller, MD says:

Does anyone posting here know how life originated? You all seem to have great faith in your answers.

May 11, 2009 at 5:49 pm
(13) AL Jeremy says:

Rob Miller said:

Does anyone posting here know how life originated? You all seem to have great faith in your answers.

Definitively? No though we have some ideas based on the current state of the available data. However, not having an definite answer is not the same as no such answer being available nor is it a free- for- all where any and every “answer” is just as valid as the next. This goes especially for “answers”, such as creationism, that has never had any evidence in support of it presented to begin with despite repeated requests.

Still, I wonder how you can make the claim that we have “great faith” in our answers if one has yet to be given? This is indicative that we should have “great faith” that you will simply dismiss any response with little to no consideration beyond the fact that they likely conflict with your beliefs.

May 11, 2009 at 7:20 pm
(14) fauxrs says:


I understand however I would say there are a number of historical facts that refute the concept of “America founded as a Christian Nation” are those facts out of bounds?

Teaching historic facts that refute such claims should be allowed. There is no need to disparage religion when discussing these facts. What is not allowed is using the public schools to teach that religion (any religion) is false. That is not their job.

May 12, 2009 at 6:15 am
(15) Zayla says:


Yes,unfortunately, some of those facts are out of bounds, because even though I happen to agree that we are NOT a “christian nation” and I can prove it with facts and that “creationism” is nothing but “superstitious nonsense”, as Mr. Corbett suggests, there are too many people that are unwilling to accept these as “facts”.

These are the same people have don’t accept “facts” as facts. As horrific as it sounds, it is.

Maybe even more unfortunate, there are still many mainstream people, for lack of a better word, that listen to them, hence the continuing fight for separation of church and state.

How it is still a fight is beyond me. Instead of listening to sound bites on Fox “News” (which means I know they’re taken out of context) I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to learn what our Founding Fathers really MEANT when they “founded” the country and there is no questioning the fact that they intended the government to have nothing to do with religion.

The only people I hear saying contrary things are christians, who seem to want a theocracy.

May 12, 2009 at 9:54 am
(16) fauxrs says:

I understand where you’re coming from Zayla and couldnt agree more with what youre saying, with that one exception.

Fact, proven historical facts, shouldnt be “out-of-bounds” simply because some individual or group doesnt like, or believe in those facts. We have examples of fact being taught that is quite beyond the realmn of belief to some (evolution) and its being fought hard to keep it that way. The truth about the founding of the nation shouldnt be any different.

As soon as we start auditing the truth to mollify a group we are destined to omit more and more fact until nothing is left but the supersticious nonsense.

What our teachers shouldnt be doing is using phrases like “supersticious nonsense” when discussing religion (as hard as that might be). When discussing the founding of this nation it should be possible and permissible to point out what the founding fathers intended without such phrases.

May 13, 2009 at 9:41 am
(17) Zayla says:

“Superstitious nonsense” is this teachers opinion, and it is subjective. It is an opinion, that you and I share, but it is an opinion he’s a history teacher and he shouldn’t be saying things like that.

If he said “It’s not superstitious nonsense” I’d be in the school’s face in a minute so regardless of perceived “facts”, it doesn’t matter.

However, if this were a science class, then I would approach it in a completely way. Then I his “subjective” opinion just changed, (though hopefully a good teacher would say it in a better way), to an objective, verifiable statement. Though, he should know what he’s stepping into.

Personally, I’m glad they brought the lawsuit and I’m glad they won.

As President of a Chapter of the AU for Separation of Church and State all it does it make the case greater for separation. Now, they can look to their own “side” and see that the law works in both directions protecting everyone.

May 13, 2009 at 11:23 am
(18) Seth351 says:

Does anyone posting here know how life originated?

No, Rob. Do you?

May 14, 2009 at 9:35 am
(19) darbea says:

Dr. Miller asks: “Does anyone posting here know how life originated?”

Sorry, but I couldn’t ignore this freebie.

I think it originated when I came.

May 14, 2009 at 3:27 pm
(20) John C. Burritt says:

While in college, I asked a professor, after class, “What was at the outer edge of Space – A little white fence?”- (jokingly)” His answer was, “There is no such thing as a straight line, only an arc of infinite radius.” This has stayed with me for the last 50 or so years. I’ve since concluded that the 4th dimension is TIME. The biggest problem in understanding the UNIVERSE and EVOLUTION as I see it, is the tremendously huge distances and times involved. The Universe numbers are measured in Billions of Light-years, literally Astronomical. In the case of Evolution, it is measured in Billions of years.

Light travels 186,000 miles per second. It takes 8 minutes for the Sun’s light to reach our eyes, and 5 more hours and that light reaches Pluto (no longer designated as a Planet). After another 4 years 4 months, it reaches Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor. Extending outward some 15 to 20 Trillion Light-Years in all directions into the far reaches of the known Universe there are Quasars – Quasi-Stellar objects – and the uniform glow of radiation from the Big Bang. The farthest Quasars are traveling away from us at 90% of the speed of light. To look at such objects is to see the Universe as it was billions of years ago. (Source: “National Geographic”- 1983, “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, & “A Brief History of Time -The Universe in a Nutshell“, Stephen Hawking.)
Like the distances in the Universe, Evolution is also measured in very large numbers. Earth was formed 4.6 Billion Years ago. To put everything into perspective, every event has been compressed into a 12-hour clock.

The formation of Earth would start at 12 noon, – - – (4.6 Billion Years ago)@ Noon
Life Begins in a form similar to Bacteria at – - – (3.5 Billion Years ago)@ 2:52
Photosynthetic bacteria appear at about (2.9 – - – - -Billion Years ago) @ 3:48*
Multi-celled plants & animals appear around – - – - – (1 Billion Years Ago)- – @ 9:24
Crustaceans appear around (650 Million Years ago) – - – - – - – - – - – - – - @ 10:18
Fish appear around (510 Million Years Ago) – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - @ 10:40
Land Plants appear around (420 Million Years Ago) – - – - – - – - – - – - – - @ 10:54
Insects appear around (380 Million Years Ago) – - – - – - – - – - – - – - @ 11:00
Seed Plants and Amphibians appear around (360 Million Years Ago)- – - – - @ 11:03
Reptiles appear around (340 Million Years Ago) – - – - – - – - – - – - – - @ 11:07
Mammals appear around (213 Million Years Ago) – - – - – - – - – - – - – - @ 11:27
Birds appear around (150 Million Years Ago) – - – - – - – - – - – - – @ 11:36
Flowering Plants appear around (140 Million Years Ago)- – — – - – - – - – - @ 11:38
Humans appear around (2 Million Years Ago) – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – @ 11:59:41
* = Note the huge gap in time that occurs between this event and the next one!
Source: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/change/deeptime/index.html, “National Geographic“, and “The Jacksonville Times Union, Oct. 2, 2005”
Religion appears (1,500 to 2,000 Years Ago) – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -@ 11:59.9999996

All of the above information, has been proven through Scientific Research. There is, however, NO Scientific proof to support religion, plus it occupies an extremely small segment of time compared to the age of Earth. It is my opinion that religion is based on the fear of the unknown.

May 15, 2009 at 4:43 pm
(21) Drew says:

Setting aside the arrogance of putting “MD” after his name in a post . . .

Mr Rob Miller should, if actually interested in how life, well, lives, pick up a high school biology text book, and find out. Biology is a pretty fascinating topic. From there, he can study chemistry. Where chemistry ends and biology begins, that is where life is formed.

Why is it that so many religious people feel threatened or scared by the existence of people who know a lot, and certainly much more than they do; yet they riducule them for not knowing EVERYTHING? Why is everything so black or white for them? I just can’t square that circle.

May 15, 2009 at 8:21 pm
(22) Jolly Jack says:

James Corbett says: “His (Socrates) crime was that he prompted people to think.”

An event in history prompted me to think, which freed me from the shackles of religion.
I am full of admiration for James, a true teacher, for having the guts to tell it like it is.
He also prompted his students to think, but Chad’s parents took off in high dudgeon because someone had dared to say something that didn’t jell with their beliefs.
I can understand their feelings to a certain degree, but to make a federal case out of it will irreparably harm Chad’s development and stunt his ability to think for himself.
Why couldn’t they have just spoken to James instead of letting their “christian” anger get the better of them?
Sad, really!

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