As Orwell said, freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If a teacher is not allowed to say that creationism is "religious, superstitious nonsense", then we are in deep trouble. And, as of last Friday, a teacher is not allowed to say that, at least not in the Central District of California.
Briefly, James Corbett, a high school history teacher and adviser for the student newspaper, was found liable for Establishment Clause violation because of the comment he made in reference to John Peloza, a biology teacher who has been fighting (and suing) the school district for his "right" to teach creationism in his science class.
The most important reason this ruling is appalling is that it prohibits telling the truth. PZ Myers nails it:
First of all, he told the truth: creationism is religious, it is a product of superstition, and it is nonsense — it doesn't fit any of the evidence we have about the history of the world or life on it. We have to have the right to tell students not only that something is wrong, but that it is stupidly wrong.And the judge's reasoning is mind-boggling (emphasis mine):
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.Hello? The context, as described by the judge himself, was Corbett's opposition to Peloza's attempts to teach creationism. Not only is creationism false, but teaching it in public schools - especially in a science class - is illegal. Pointing this out obviously has a secular purpose.
So much for one prong of the Lemon test; the judge sours the next one just as badly:
The Court finds that Corbett’s statement primarily sends a message of disapproval of religion or creationism. As discussed above, Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is “superstitious nonsense.” Corbett could have criticized Peloza for teaching religious views in class without disparaging those views.This is wrong on several levels. First, it is beyond dispute that, in the context of science, which is what Peloza was supposed to teach, creationism is superstitious nonsense. If it weren't, the fact that it is illegal to teach it would be hugely problematic. If those views did not deserve disparaging, Peloza would be a victim of persecution by the Capistrano Unified School District, the US District Court for the Central District of California (the same one that decided this case) and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. There is a reason creationism is not allowed in the science curriculum.
(And, to preempt the argument that it has nothing to do with truth or falsehood, but only with favoring religion, let me ask if teaching some claim that came from a religion - and, to make the case harder, was denied by another religion - would still be prohibited if the claim turned out to be true. Let's say science discovered that it really was turtles all the way down; would it make any sense to proclaim that teaching that violates the Establishment Clause?)
Furthermore, if so many non-fundamentalist believers and conciliatory non-believers have been trying to convince the public that religion is compatible with evolution, how come disparaging creationism is equated with disparaging religion? Again, I'll outsource this to PZ:
[W]e are being told over and over again that Christianity is not equivalent to creationism. This teacher has specifically said that creationism is nonsense, and this judge has equated a dismissal of a weird anti-scientific belief with making a rude remark about Christianity. So…where are all the Christians rising in outrage at the slander of their faith?Finally, this suit was not brought by Peloza, but by a student, Chad Farnan. It is a mystery why Farnan should have standing to sue over a disparaging statement one teacher made about another teacher.
Ed Brayton wrote about the decision as well, but he seems terribly confused for a normally staunch free speech proponent. While Ed seems to tepidly agree that the creationism comment did not violate the EC, he also seems to think that some of Corbett's other comments, which the judge found not to have violated the EC, were more problematic:
Again, this is really strained reasoning. If he really wanted to make the nuanced point that the court thinks he was making, he could certainly have done it in a much more scholarly and serious way. Instead, the statement he made was inflammatory and insulting. There just isn't any place for that kind of hostility in a public school classroom.The way I read it, Ed would have found Corbett liable at least for the "Jesus glasses" comment. That is very disappointing, even more so because he stops at hand-waving and makes no attempt to argue with the Court's actual reasoning. Not surprisingly, a lot of Ed's commenters agree with him, many of them flaunting their ignorance of the facts (e.g., implying that Corbett was a science teacher). I will reproduce my comment here:
Why would the "Jesus glasses" comment be inappropriate? Jesus (if he existed, or other people in his name) promoted a certain set of moral rules that are demonstrably impossible to follow without acting against one's best interest, as the vast majority of Americans understand "one's best interest". It should be a history teacher's duty to explain why a certain group acted against its own interests - at least as it would appear to us. Unless there is evidence that "they were blinded/manipulated by religion" is not a fair explanation, i.e., not one widely accepted by historians, the teacher should be free to teach it.But don't take my word for it, go to the source and read the decision.
As for the Mark Twain quote, as long as it is a true quote, it ought to be fair game for a teacher to use it. After all, Twain is arguably the greatest American writer ever (certainly the most acclaimed word-wide), and is (hopefully) well-represented on the syllabus of some required courses. Shouldn't students learn that the greatest American writer was an atheist?
UPDATE (5/5/09): As usual, Digby gets it.