How to respond in the classroom to questions about religion

… In public schools. According to one Federal Judge in the US, not much.

A Mission Viejo high school history teacher violated the First Amendment by disparaging Christians during a classroom lecture, a federal judge ruled.

a repost

James Corbett, a 20-year teacher at Capistrano Valley High School, referred to Creationism as “religious, superstitious nonsense” during a 2007 classroom lecture, denigrating his former Advanced Placement European history student, Chad Farnan.

The decision is the culmination of a 16-month legal battle between Corbett and Farnan – a conflict the judge said should remind teachers of their legal “boundaries” as public school employees.

In some ways, this ruling is correct, in my view, according to the current law. Statements about religion in a public high school classroom in a class that is not about religion can be taken a lot of ways by students, and given the authority enriched position of a teacher, almost always risk violating the establishment clause one way or another. This is why teachers are advised to make different kinds of claims, such as “Your question, Little Timmy, is about religion. This is a science class. Take your question elsewhere please.” … And after Little Timmy has asked the same religiously oriented question (related to Evolution) the third or fourh time, “Timmy, I asked you to stop disrupting the class in this manner, go to the office.”

On the other hand, if a question about evolution is legitimately raised in a science classroom, which can happen a number of different ways, a teacher may have the responsibility at some point to say that the scientific view is valid and the religious view is not. If the source of the conflict is not the teacher (is not in the curriculum) and is not merely a discipline issue (a student disrupting the class by handing out bible pages) then a direct retort may be valid, in my view.

But maybe not in this legal framework.

This brings up another question which to me is very disconcerting. Do these rules (the ones we are speaking of here as well as other case law regarding teaching science) apply to public colleges? Personally, I do not see the distinction between public high schools and colleges in many of these rulings. I find it fascinating that this has not come up as an issue. Yet.

In the case in question:

“Corbett states an unequivocal belief that Creationism is ‘superstitious nonsense,'” U.S. District Court Judge James Selna said in a 37-page ruling released from his Santa Ana courtroom. “The court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context.”

There clearly is a weakness in the ruling here, and I think we can refer to Dover for this. The teacher is making te case that Creationism is not valid science. Perhaps the teacher used strong words to say it, but that is not the issue here. The teacher is technically correct. So, the court has suppressed a valid statement of truth in favor of a subjective opinion. That may be how this decision goes away at some higher level.

[source of the story]

This is being discussed here.

At the beginning of every school year, I try to post new and “the best of” blog posts specifically written for teachers. If you want to see this year’s “back to school special” posts in a list, click here. I’ll be posting these items through the month of September. There will likely be one or two items new every day.

Please feel free to send a link to all your teacher friends so they know about it!!!! And, if there is something you’d like to see discussed, let me know.

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4 thoughts on “How to respond in the classroom to questions about religion

  1. I also can’t help thinking that YEC at least is very relevant to a history class discussing either enlightenment thought and the history of science, or prehistory of any region (most noticeably the Med basin and the Near East, where you’re in direct conflict with biblical sources, but really anything with a date beyond the fourth millenium).

  2. If I remember correctly (this case started a long time ago) the “context” of phrase, was the teacher quoting a letter written to the school paper…..and the whole story was being told because someone asked about an argument the teacher had about freedom of press.

    The layers of context to the actual phrase in question becomes a bit absurd to find it offensive. It would be similar to say “Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe in the resurrection story” as being too controversial.

  3. Seems about right to me.

    I agree with him that Creationism is superstitious nonsense, but his classroom was not the place to be pushing his religous beliefs on his students. I would be equally critical of someone who said that Atheism was immoral nonsense, for the same reasons.

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