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The Sciences

Things You Can't Say in School

Cosmic VarianceBy John ConwayMay 8, 2009 10:32 PM


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A decision came down this week from the U.S. District Court in Central California in the case of Farnan v. Capistrano Unified School District. There are a few emerging news reports on what happened; the best article I found so far is in the Orange County Register. Apparently a student (Farnan) recorded a number of statements made in a AP course on European history taught by James Corbett, and the student felt that the statements made by the teacher violated his First Amendment rights under the establishment clause. Among the twenty or so statements made by Corbett about which the complaint was made, the court found that only one, where Corbett referred to creationism as "religious, superstitious nonsense" violated the student's constitutional right not to have a "government official" in effect establish a secularist religion. The statement arose, apparently, because another teacher, Peloza, was, in Corbett's view, teaching religious, superstitious nonsense. From the Court's ruling:

Peloza apparently brought suit against Corbett because Corbett was the advisor to a student newspaper which ran an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion rather than science in his classroom. Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, “was not telling the kids [Peloza’s students] the scientific truth about evolution.” Corbett also told his students that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper to present his point of view, Corbett stated, “I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.” One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should not be resenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the statement: 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. The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

The decision is worth taking a look at, and may become a cause celebre for the creationists. It's worth wading through the legalese, and getting to the other statements that the court did not think violated Farnan's rights, and which statements it felt did. In the case of the Peloza comment, the Court suggested that Corbett might have "criticized Peloza for teaching religious views in class without disparaging those views" and thereby would not have violated their rights. Yikes! Quite subtle nuances now separate what you can and can't say in class. If you are a teacher, particularly one who intends to tell your students that creation "science" isn't really science but is religiously inspired non-science, are you violating your students' rights? I can imagine many, many more things which, said slightly different ways, could be taken to violate students' rights. Can a court really take a single sentence and say "this constitutes the establishment of a state (non)religion"? I am aghast at the thought. Personally I hope that Corbett and the Capistrano school district appeal this one...and the ACLU should take a major interest here. The chilling and anti-rational effect of this ruling on classrooms all over the country is all too real.

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