Tuesday, May 05, 2009

On "Religious, Superstitious Nonsense"

A federal district court decision from California last week has been widely discussed around the blogosphere. I first picked it up from over at PZ's place, but it's since shown up at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, DailyKos, and Volokh. I understand the interest in the case, but I think a lot of folks are missing a couple of key details that might explain the result.

The case is about a high school student who thought his AP European History teacher was saying naughty things about religion. Needless to say, the conservative Christian student didn't like this. Armed with a tape recorder, he capture 20 statements from his teacher to which he objected. He sued, arguing that the teacher's disrespect for religion violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

The district court finally ruled, concluding that 19 of the statements were OK, in the context of the AP Euro History class. But one of the statements, the judge concluded, violated the First Amendment (emphasis mine):

The Court turns first to Corbett's statement regarding John Peloza. This statement presents the closest question for the Court in assessing secular purpose. 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.'
The court concluded that there was no "legitimate secular purpose in this statement" and it therefore violated the Establishment Clause.

The commentary has round criticized the court's decision, and maybe they're right. It does seem a bit odd. But there are two points that I think people are overlooking when making those criticisms:

First, the full statement found by the court to be problematic is that “I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense”. Lots of folks (mostly in comments, but still) are leaving out the word "religious," focusing only on “superstitious nonsense.” How can calling creationism “superstitious nonsense” violate the First Amendment? It depends on what the word “religious” means.

If the teacher really meant “creationism, which is religious, happens to be superstitious nonsense,” the focus is on the discrete doctrine, not “religion” as a whole. On the other hand, if he meant “creationism is a religious belief and is therefore superstitious nonsense,” that takes aim at religion in all its forms. Now, I happen to agree with the second meaning, but that’s taking sides in an epoch-long debate, in which the First Amendment prevents the Government from taking sides. I think the judge probably construed the teacher’s meaning in the second, rather than the first way. The first reading would be less problematic.

Second, all of the 19 other statements which the kid alleged were improper were made in the context of the teacher’s discussion of his area of teaching – AP European History. By contrast, the “religious, superstitious nonsense” line came during a discussion of an ongoing dispute involving another teacher and his attempts to shoehorn creationism into the science curriculum. I think the judge may have been giving the first teacher great latitude when he was speaking in the course of teaching, but found the “nonsense” comment to be an example of him stepping outside that protective bubble. I could be wrong, but that’s the sense I get.

The bottom line is that the Establishment Clause, as currently (and correctly, IMHO) interpreted, requires the Government to be neutral on religious questions. It's just as wrong for a teacher to wax on about the wonders of Jesus in class as it is for him to belittle a religious belief as insane woo. It works both ways. The court in this case may have erred in the factual analysis, but his principles are sound and I don't think the outcome is as clear as some other think.

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