Friday, May 08, 2009

Can we call creationism a "superstitious nonsense"?

May be not so easily. Here is a fascinating (but not in a good way) court decision against calling creationism as "superstitious nonsense":

A US teenager has successfully won a lawsuit against a teacher who described creationism as "superstitious nonsense".

Chad Farnan, a devout Christian studying at California's Capistrano Valley high school, persuaded a judge that his European history teacher, James Corbett, violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which courts interpret as banning government employees from promoting, or displaying hostility towards, religion.

Farnan claimed Corbett made comments that were "derogatory, disparaging and belittling regarding religion and Christianity in particular". In legal documents submitted to the US district court, he said he was uncomfortable going to class and felt as though Corbett had created an atmosphere in which he could not effectively learn "both because and regardless of his religious beliefs".

Now, I'm pretty sure I have called creationism "nonsense" (though not with "superstitious") in many of my classes, because, is nonsense. So have I violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment? (Hampshire is a private college, so I don't think it applies over there). I know the ruling is related to a high school teacher - but it may also apply to undergraduate education. This is an important questions as I aim to call creationism "nonsense" again in the fall semester :) . I think it depends on the context. There were many other statements of the teacher that did not violate the Establishment clause. For example:

Farnan spent almost 18 months gathering material against Corbett, compiling a dossier that featured secret recordings of the teacher's remarks.

However, Judge James Selna found in a 37-page ruling that almost all the statements cited by the plaintiff did not violate the establishment cause, including Corbett's view that "when you put on your Jesus glasses, you can't see the truth" – a reference to peasants who did not support the reforms of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II for religious reasons. The judge said the statement was made in the context of an historical discussion. He dismissed other comments by Corbett that "conservatives don't want women to avoid pregnancies — that's interfering with God's work" and that there was as much evidence that God created the world "as there is that there is a gigantic spaghetti monster living behind the moon who did it".

Only one of Corbett's opinions fell foul of the First Amendment – his "unequivocal belief that creationism is superstitious nonsense". Judge Selna concluded that there was no legitimate secular purpose to the statement and it constituted "improper disapproval of religion in violation of the establishment clause".

Ah. I think in a science class (or even in a science & religion class discussing "origins"), creationism becomes a fair game since we are looking at the physical validity of the claims. Perhaps, the issue is that this issue came up in a class on European history - but still. Another puzzling thing about the decision is that creationism is not a religion. Instead it is a claim derived from a religion - a claim (especially that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old) that has been tested by science and has shown to be "nonsense" way beyond a reasonable doubt. In this context, of course, creationism is "nonsense" along with flat-earth claims, spiritual healing, astrology, etc. etc. Also, are all religions protected in the same way? Can one call Scientology a nonsense? Actually, UFO religions are not a problem for me, as I really like them (go Raelians!) and would never call them nonsense.

So was it the "superstitious" bit that triggered the ruling? Don't know. But all of this will raise interesting questions about the balance between free speech and the establishment clause of the First amendment:

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".

In any case, this is an interesting (in a scary disappointing way) court decision. Read the Guardian article here.


Atif Khan said...

Wish you all the best for your next classes and hope you remain sound and safe.

Matthew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew said...

Oops... I went back and reread the Guardian article. I'm certainly not a lawyer, but I'm confused by the ruling. If it's purely because he was being critical of religion, then most of his comments do fit the bill. But that's not a First Amendment fight, that's a discrimination fight. It's discriminatory in the same way that comments that are gender-biased, race-biased, or orientation-biased are. It created a hostile environment.

The only way I see that being a First Amendment issue is if the judge focused on the "unequivocal belief", which can be interpreted as proseletyzing. But that's not how I read the article.

Honestly, I give greater weight to the discriminatory aspect of the sum of his comments. There is a huge power imbalance between a high school teacher and the pupils, and a student does not have the option of speaking out, arguing back, or leaving the classroom and taking a different class. Overall the teacher's comments really did strike me as discriminatory in that regard.

As I said in the post I deleted, this is an unfortunate test case, not just because of the potential chilling effect on the critical discussion of creationism, but because the teacher really came across as a bullying ass. He shot himself in the foot as far as I'm concerned.

Salman Hameed said...


Good point. By the way, I thought you were going to say "I'm certainly not a lawyer, but I play one on TV" :-)

I think you've brought up an interesting point. I was only looking at it from the First amendment perspective - and then it certainly makes it more complicated for a classroom setting. If it was a discriminatory case, then I guess one can focus more on the teacher's attitude - rather than on the larger context.

Lets see if ACLU will get involved in it or not.

Matthew said...

"I'm certainly not a lawyer, but I play one on TV"Night Court, maybe....

They might decline to take up his case if his behavior was egregiously bad. But if they feel the precedent is too dangerous for civil liberties, they will.

Salman Hameed said...

""I'm certainly not a lawyer, but I play one on TV" Night Court, maybe...."

Well...I would have played a lawyer on TV - but Judge Judy doesn't need any lawyers - she can handle it all on her own.

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