Fair To A Fault: Secularist Chastised For Bashing Religion In School

May 2, 2009 | By | 20 Replies More

The next time someone says to you that religion is under attack by the courts in the schools because of the separation clause, consider this high school history teacher who has been found guilty of insulting Christians in class.

image by Dave_mcmt at Flickr (creative commons)

image by Dave_mcmt at Flickr (creative commons)

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

The problem with this is that, basically, Mr. Corbett only told the truth, and appears to have talked almost exclusively about Creationism, not Christianity.  The judge made the immediate connection between the two, however.   U.S. District Court Judge James Selna’s claim that he can find “no secular purpose” in Corbett’s statements is either thick-witted or disingenuous—it would seem to be a teacher’s job to point out to students something that is, well, idiocy.

However, I expect an appeal on this, because it is also clear that the judge in question has something of a bias here.  But it’s instructive—rather than take the idea of Creationism as what it has lately been packaged, namely Intelligent Design, and examine it as a claim of “science” as its advocates insist it is, Selna understands immediately that this is a bogus proposition.  That, in fact, Intelligent Design is a religious idea in a new wrapper.  Corbett’s dismissal of Creationism can only then be an attack on religion.

Which, by the letter of the law, is a violation of the separation clause.

Those who advocate against secularism and insist religious ideas have no defense in this modern state should look at this as an example—not in their favor, because it still won’t allow for the introduction of religion into public schools—of the fact, oft-stated, that the Constitution requires even-handed exclusions.  Secularists can’t even say nasty things about a bogus idea that has only association relevance to religion.  You can’t even bring it up to say it’s wrong.

Personally, I do think this is a bit idiotic, but—what’s that old phrase—it is fair to a fault.


Category: American Culture, Censorship, Communication, Current Events, Education, Law, Noteworthy, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (20)

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  1. Karl says:

    The judge is only giving secularism a taste of its own tactics. The appeal may be lost, but this only shows that in political and secular debate, what goes around comes around. If public debate is squashed in regards to the values on one side of a public debate in public schools it should be squashed on the other side as well. That exactly what I've heard Tony advocating, or the goal is not freedom of religion.

    Its awfully hard not to teach from some perspective of personal values, especially when one can easily be convinced oneself that ones's ideas are not values but scientific facts.

    "Good morning boy and girls, I am a secularist, but I will teach with an open mind concerning your personal values and religious beliefs."

  2. Tony Coyle says:


    Thanks for commenting, but don't put incorrect words into my mouth.

    My position is not that of a secular proselytizer. I simply believe that religion has no place in secular education. And especially not in a country that prides itself on it's First Amendment rights that "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

    I believe the Judge in this case is arguing incorrectly. It's even more interesting given the cubic miles of state legislation that have been created by the very Christian advocates of 'academic freedom' espousing exactly the opposite view – that creationism is NOT religion.

    This is a perfectly dichotomous situation. (apologies to Danny – this is binary, truly).

    If creationism is SCIENCE then it is not protected by the 'free exercise' as argued by the judge. The teacher's speech is not therefore religiously discriminatory, but simply argument on facts – and expressly not protected. In this case the Judge is simply wrong, and the finding should be reversed on appeal.

    If creationism is RELIGION, it has protection under law, but has no place in school (outside of intellectual or referential discussions of religion, on sociology, history, culture, and the like). In this case, the finding should stand.

    Your choice. But you cannot argue both sides of this fence.

    If creationism is religion, then the teacher's speech is definitely in contravention of the 'free exercise' – since a teacher's opinion is a proxy for that of the state. However – I would wonder the circumstances in which the statement was made. Perhaps the teacher could simply have reacted differently:

    Timmy – religion is not an appropriate topic for this class, or this topic. Please refrain from disrupting the lesson. Any further disruptions will require that I send you to the Principal.If little Timmy continues to press, then the teacher should send him to the Principal's office for disruption.

    But – I'm pretty certain you would be up in arms at such anti-christian behavior on the part of the teacher. Just as I was appalled that you, a science teacher, would consider that there even was a 'second side' to the 'debate on evolution'. Unless you're talking about 'continuous' -v- 'punctuated' – there really is no scientific debate. Only a political debate driven by religious advocacy.

  3. Karl says:

    Lets not get into nit picking over interpretations.

    The entire matter would best be resolved by the term public school be changed to factually mean secular and/or atheistic, and public taxation and funding cease for parents who would choose to send their children to other schools.

    Either every parent should have a choice as to how/what their children are taught or their taxes are actually being used in manners over which they have no meaningful representation.

  4. Mindy Carney says:

    Karl, you are outrageous. Truly. Stop calling the schools "public" so that you can name them secular or atheist?? What purpose would that serve? Education is about sooooo much more than religion, or the absence thereof. And gosh, why on earth would we nitpick over interpretations of matters of LAW?? Isn't our entire judicial foundation based on interpretation of matters of law in this country? Tony is correct – that if Creationism is science, as Christians would like us to believe, then it is not protected under the law. If it is religion, then yes, it stands, but from that point on, then, all must agree that it is, in fact, not science and cannot be taught as such.

    The fact that anywhere has allowed it in school is horrifying to me – I find it appalling that children are being deprived of an education based in actual facts in order to placate the powerbrokers SOME of their parents' religion.

  5. IyoKobat says:

    As an agnostic, I usually don't find myself siding with the rulings that broaden the scope of "religious" freedoms. In general, my opinion could be summarized as: I believe in freedom of religion, but I also believe in freedom from religion.

    To show that the courts occasionally rule in favor of religious organizations, the California Supreme Court declined to review the case of a Lutheran High school that expelled two students for an alleged lesbian affair. While I might disagree with the actions of the school, I believe the court did the right thing in protecting the organization's right to define its own doctrine, moral boundaries, etc. I would have a very different opinion if these actions were done by a public school.

  6. Tony Coyle says:


    I must disabuse you. This is not "nit picking over interpretations"

    I fail to understand why the term 'public school' in a country whose constitution demands no establishment of religion, needs to change – other than to satisfy that minority of the population who think that 'public' schools should actually be called 'christian' school.

    You live in a country whose constitution demands that there shall be no establishment of religion. Schools, being public institutions may not, therefore, be anything other than secular.

    You also have, by virtue of that same constitution, the right to free exercise of your religion, whatever it may be, and to indoctrinate your children as you see fit. If you can get your school certified by the state board of education, you can even remove your children entirely from the public school system with no-one able to deny you that free exercise of your rights. You know this, since you are a teacher in such an establishment.

    Your comment about taxes and 'representation' would therefore be laughable, were it not part of the same meme that resulted in the recent 'TEA' protests (in deference to your sensibilities, I'll refrain from any jokes)

    As a citizen of the US, you do have a choice. You voted, didn't you? You do elect your school boards, don't you? Those boards set the standards, and determine the course for the schools in their purview. Those elected boards are made up of citizens, elected by citizens, and direct the actions of those public schools that are paid for by citizens.

    I am not yet a citizen. I have no such direct representation, yet I still happily pay my taxes to ensure public education is adequately funded.

    I also pay taxes that support vouchers for citizens to pay for charter schools – whose curricula can have a religious bias. Again – I am willing to support choice and support education.

    I am completely unwilling to stand by and see a fair system be denigrated by someone with a partisan agenda, such as yourself. Your choice of words is specifically designed to suggest that you are being more than reasonable, and that you are trying hard to accept we 'hard line atheists' – a task that you willingly undertake, simply because you are full of god's grace and see it as your earthly duty.

    I call bullshit!

    The public schools system is secular because the constitution requires government to be expressly secular. That those secular governmental institutions have been infiltrated by people with a religious agenda is not to be denied — something which gained especial force during the McCarthy era. But for you to try to claim that the religious veneer of America is a natural concomitant of the nation's founding; that Christianity has a 'special place'; that 'secular' needs to be called out as different and somehow abnormal, so that 'right thinking' people can recognize it and choose differently (correctly).

    That is not even wrong.

  7. Karl says:

    Thank-you Tony on your views concerning the use of local property taxes, state educational resources, and federal educational resources to support the secular education of the American citizenery.

    I am simply stating that the local property taxes used for the funding of public schools as it currently exists is far from representative.

    A parent whose child is educated by a specific school should contribute a larger share towards the costs of said education than does one whose child doesn't attend that school. If a parent decides to sent their child to someplace other than the local public school, the lion share of that parent's contribution to the local public school is essentially used for funding the education of other children, in a philosophy which they may not necessarily agree with.

  8. Tony Coyle says:


    let's apply your perspective on public funding to other areas, then…

    If I never drink from the faucet, so why should I pay the extra money in my taxes to ensure potable water – instead of water simply fit to wash in?

    If I don't own a car, why should I pay taxes for roads and bridges?

    I never use trains – I don;t see why I should subsidize them in my taxes.

    I don't use city parks – that space could be used for development that would reduce my taxes instead of being a drain!

    and so on.

    None of the statements are true, of course.

    The safe, regulated public water supply is possibly the major reason we are healthier than people in third world countries. It is vital and necessary, even if I personally never drink from my faucet, most of the things I eat and drink rely on that public water supply.

    Everything I eat or drink or wear or watch was transported on a road at some point. Without public investment in highway infrastructure, we'd all be living in a backwoods bayou (with an equivalent standard of living).

    Trains and train lines reduce congestion on major highways, and are the primary method for long-haul transportation of many bulk goods and commodities. If all passenger trains were eliminated now, the railway lines would still be a vital national resource.

    City parks, and other civic amenities such as libraries, sports facilities, pavilions, community colleges and the like, are paid for by public financing because they are of public benefit. I could imagine a world without such public places – but it would be drab and utilitarian for the most part — those places that we pay for as a community would likely become as accessible as a Disney park (there for everyone who can afford it), and many would simply disappear if there were no 'profit' in the venture.

    So. Tell me again why you should be able to opt out of paying for public facilities?

  9. Karl says:

    If I choose to not connect to and use the water supply I shouldn't be taxed to supply water to other people.

    If I choose to be a subsidence farmer who does not participate in trade and commerce I shouldn't be required to pay a "use" tax upon the roads.

    That's freedom of choice. Mandatory taxation for the good of the masses is only a way of manipulation no matter how good the claim is stated for the undertaking.

    If I choose to be a subsidence farmer who does not participate in trade and commerce I shouldn't be required to pay for the use of the roads.

    If I get a benefit from the use of public roads by others then I should be required to assist in some general minimal way for their construction and upkeep.

    When there is a minimalamount of service or benefit that I receive from a public institution/service I should pay evenly for the minimal amount assessible to my individual assessment

    Corporations and businesses are different entities because they rely on the government to provide for the environment for them to carry on their commerce.

    But individuals that are assessed the same level of taxation for very diseparate use of the services of the public schools should complain, and have another tea party as you would call it.

  10. You support public schools because you live in the community and educated people are a community resource. The specifics of one course has less to do with the overall benefit to the community than financially opting out would be detrimental to the whole system.

    It's your contention, as it is with others, that because there is no actual religion included in public school curriculum, education is de facto sub par. I have seen nothing to suggest that this is true. Nor have I seen anything to suggest that religion's absence in school cannot be compensated for by religious teachings in the home. Nor have I seen anything to suggest that religious instruction makes a bit of difference when other social factors converge to render life untenable for people. In other words, poverty far more impacts young people in their decision-making than does anything in school—in fact, if you're trying to make the argument that the absence of religion in public education is a spur to juvenile crime (because of the lack of a moral compass) then the stats argue against it because juvenile crime is highest in areas with the highest truancy rates and drop-out rates. These kids aren't taking the lessons of secularism over religion, they're taking NO lessons in lieu of street life. To suggest that having Jesus in the classroom will make these kids return to school and behave is ludicrous.

    On the other hand, since there is a direct corrolary between poverty and religious affiliation, at least statistically, it would seem that the presence of religion in communities with high crime rates coupled with entrenched poverty makes no difference—it seems more to go along with lower educational achievements across the board.

    In short, your argument that for some reason there is a detriment to a community because religion is excluded from public education begs the question of why the availability of religion from other sources is insufficient to compensate for this or how its presence would change anything other than to mollify the dissatisfaction of people who already seem to have an education exhibit with regards to ongoing educational efforts.

    With regards to the high school teacher mentioned in my post, I agree with his sentiments—creationism is superstitious claptrap (this should be no surprise to you) and is unsupportable by any scientific approach. The mistake the teacher made was in allowing a student to goad him into making an unfortunate remark that goes to the crux of the separation clause in modern legal philosophy. But I would be sorely put out to find my taxes going toward an education that includes serious consideration of creationism in the classroom in any other context than as history. So where would I be able to send my dollars to ensure my (theoretical) kids would not be exposed to your superstitious claptrap? Secularists actually have far fewer private options than religionists, and those options generally cost a damn sight more. I would be penalized economically.

    But the underlying philosophical question stands—how come church on Sunday isn't enough, if as claimed such instruction represents Truth? One would assume it would be sufficient in any contest with the bogus.

    It is more likely, in my opinion, that when exposed in an evenhanded way to both viewpoints, rational human beings opt to exclude the superstition from their lives because the fruits of post Enlightenment reason prove superior.

    I know you disagree.

  11. Karl says:

    The elderly who have paid their dues to society often get exemptions from school taxes or they would not be able to maintain the houses they own. This is a school tax inequity and is certainly not based upon a current use or non use of the system.

    Homeowners who have no children to enroll in a public school should also be able to receive a fair tax break based upon a fair use of the system policy?

    As I see it there should be at least two levels taxation for the funding of the public schools.

    One would be a required minimal amount that all individuals who file from specific addresses, including the elderly, private school parents and business should be required to pay. The other should be a fair use of the system additional school tax that would be pay as you go while one has children actually enrolled in a specific public school. If there were no children enrolled in a public school, why should a house hold be made to pay the same amount as one with multiple children enrolled in the public school.

    Why should a home school choice or a private school choice be such that other people still get to decide where the lion share of their tax dollars will be spent since the money will only indirectly benefit these individuals.

  12. Karl writes:—"If I choose to not connect to and use the water supply I shouldn’t be taxed to supply water to other people."

    I didn't know you were such a libertarian. However, this is a democratic republic and it just don't work that way here and never has.

    Let's put it this way: you live here. Taxes are rent. You pay taxes for the maintenance of the community so Those People You Don't Wish to Support don't riot and burn your house down because they don't have services.

    Be that as it may, libertarianism is so not what Jesus taught that I am gobsmacked over how to respond to you from now on.

  13. Tony Coyle says:

    Karl doesn't want libertarianism – he wants authoritarianism. He simply wants to live in a Theocracy. Except that he's also been brainwashed by the ultra-right-wing towards the psudo-libertarian mindset of 'personal -v- government' (which is NOT libertarianism, in the same way Communism in Russia was not Marxism). It's MTV libertarianism – freedom without any responsibility.

    In Karl's world:

    You get to ignore public policy (except where the church gets to stick it's nose into my life and dictate on 'public' morals.)

    You get to 'opt out' of taxes (except if those taxes are paying for an illegal and unjustified war)

    You get to complain about illegal immigrants (but you are fine with low cost landscaping, building services, and restaurants who rely on those same undocumented immigrants)

    You get to opt out of supporting your government (unless you are a 'draft dodger')

    You get to choose what's right for your children (unless you are gay, liberal, freethinking, or anything other than 'red-blooded-american')

    You get to complain loudly about earmarks (especially if they are for 'boondoggle science projects')

    You strangely keep quiet about subsidies and tax breaks and tax havens (as being necessary to a free world)

    You believe that religion and religious topics should be freely taught in public schools (but only christian religion – of course we secularists could always 'opt out' of such a system, right?)


    I agree totally with Mark. I have no idea how to sustain a reasonable dialog with you, when your ideology seems so confused, and yet so consistently appalling.

    The only constant is that you are 100% motivated by your die-hard brand of christian zealotry, and are willing to argue any point in support of that.

  14. glinda says:

    Ya, paying your taxes is actually one of the things Jesus commented on. He said to do it.

    Do fundamentalists ever *read* the Gospels? They're the only part of the Bible where Jesus talks; and fundamentalists never quote them. Probably because he came down on the opposite side as them if he did opine on an issue; and didn't find their biggest thumping-tubs worth commenting on at all. Leave it to Ultra-Orthodox Jews to quote obscure laws from Leviticus (male homosexuality is an abomination, etc.). You don't qualify as an Ultra-orthodox Jew because, among a myriad examples, you keep Shabbat on the wrong day and probably wear clothes that mix fabrics but don't wear tefillin, payess, or fringes under your clothes. And to qualify as a Jesus follower you should really concentrate on what he had to say. It's even helpfully highlighted by being in red in most Christian Bibles.

    Besides, if you follow Leviticus, you'd all have to stone each other for Sabbath violations like cooking.

  15. glinda says:

    By Karl's reasoning, I should have been legally allowed to not pay taxes all through the Bush administration.

    Potable water not being available to all citizens keeps a country out of the First World. It's not all about you. You're a citizen, not the raison d'etre.

  16. Karl says:

    I am not a libertarian, I render to Ceasar what is Ceasar's. If anyone is listening, I said in so many words that I believe that minimal taxation that provides for the possibility of everyone having the choice to avail themselves of a public service is perfectly agreeable.

    What I also said however, that no one has commented upon is the right to also not opt into or out of a specific mandated public service when other options which are also lawful are also readily available.

    Directly funded public hospitals are few and far between, but this will not stay the same once universal healthcare is pushed through Congress.

    Volunteer organizations that assist many hospitals will soon dry up once the government is given strong regulatory control of expenses, and funding.

    I can see it now, doctors and nurses will have to leave God talk out of their discussions with patients for fear of offending someone and losing their job. Religious sponsored hospitals will soon loose any meaning of what that historically has meant.

    When mandated public services that are funded through taxation are actually utilized, there should be a fair way of paying as you go, so that those who receive direct benefit are more responsible for the actual costs incurred besides the provision of the facilities and administration that make the public service possible.

    I'm not saying that private school parents and teacher's shouldn't be responsible for making the possibility of a public school education available to everyone. I am saying that parents of childen should be given a tax credit for having taken a degree of personal responisibility for the education of their own children.

    Actual educational costs per child that would lower the average cost of the educational system should be encouraged. Home schooled children should be seen as actually being a cost savings to society. Private schooled children that cost less to educate per child than do the public schools should likewise be seen as a cost savings to the society.

    The secular control factors that come with the term public makes little sense to anyone but the atheists and agnostics who prefer to believe they are not biased in what they decide for other people.

  17. Tony Coyle says:


    If a doctor feels the need to pray for me – then I want a different doctor! I want a doctor and nursing staff who are medically competent. If I want someone to pray for me, I'll ask a priest, an imam, a pastor, a chaplain or a rabbi – not a doctor, and not a nurse.

    You are pissing in your pants that those of us who are not fundamentalists are taking away your claim of being special. We're not taking anything away – we are reclaiming the birthright of all Americans as enshrined in the constitution and the bill of rights. No establishment, and free exercise. That means you may NOT impose your blather upon me without my permission. And that also means that you can't have public that is also religiously based.

    You are also trying to weasel out of your very clear statement that you do not want to pay for public services, such as schools, that you don't personally use. You want the option to opt out. That is not 'rendering unto Caesar'.

    Your statement was very clear, and you responded to my later post with an even clearer exposition:

    If I choose to not connect to and use the water supply I shouldn’t be taxed to supply water to other people.If I choose to be a subsidence farmer who does not participate in trade and commerce I shouldn’t be required to pay a “use” tax upon the roads.That’s freedom of choice. Mandatory taxation for the good of the masses is only a way of manipulation no matter how good the claim is stated for the undertaking.

    Now tell me again that you're not a libertarian, authoritarian, theocratic fundamentalist.

    Your own words accuse you.

    Are you a willing citizen of this democratic republic, or are you a fifth-columnist seeking to destroy it's very foundations from within?

    (see – I can do scary right wing fear-mongering too)

  18. Erich Vieth says:

    More fear-mongering for Karl: "Karl, if you're not with us, you're against us!"

    And consider, Karl, that Glinda's suggestion that she shouldn't have to pay for George Bush's government must be a religious belief because, for you, everything is a religious belief.

    I haven't kept a formal tally but we must have had 2 dozen occasions where DI authors have expressed utter exasperation with Karl, only to be drawn back when they see yet another contorted, two-thirds baked Karlism hanging out there in the comments.

    I really don't know what to do with you and your comments, Karl. Two dozen and one.

  19. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Tony, a bit of background may be needed. Several years ago many fundamentalist groups bought into a form of spin by claiming that secular humanism<a> should be considered a religion and must, therefore, have all of it's concepts banned from public schools. There is a good bit of detail in the wikipedia entry.

  20. Tony Coyle says:


    Thanks for the link!

    I was aware of the general meme, and 'spin' surrounding it, but not of the formal attempts to actually challenge something so non-theistic as a religion. I won;t say such a thing would be impossible (The US does recognize Scientology as a religion, after all)

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