Saturday, May 02, 2009

 

Accommodating the Law


The latest ruling on the religion-science front is by a Federal judge in California holding that a public school teacher who called creationism "religious, superstitious nonsense," violated a creationist student's First Amendment rights.

The student, known only as "C.F." in the court papers, has been revealed to be Chad Farnan in the news media and the teacher was James Corbett, a 20-year teacher at Capistrano Valley High School. Numerous other alleged violations of the student's rights were thrown out but the one statement was found to be a violation of the Establishment Clause, which will probably cost the school district dearly in legal fees.

Corbett's statement indirectly involved the somewhat famous case from the early 1990s of John Peloza, a teacher who sued the Capistrano Unified School District, claiming that the school, by requiring him to teach evolution, was violating his First Amendment rights by making him teach a "religion;" was violating his Free Speech rights by prohibiting him from talking with students about religion during the school day; and that the school had defamed him. As the court in the new ruling explained the connection:

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. (Id.) 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." One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should not be presenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the statement: Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is "superstitious nonsense."
The judge found that there was no legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context, and, therefore, it constituted improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause. As the judge explained the law (citations and internal quotation marks omitted):

Here, Farnan contends that Corbett violated the Establishment Clause by making comments hostile to religion and to Christianity in particular. Although [the Lemon test] is most frequently invoked in cases involving alleged governmental preferences to religion, the test also accommodates the analysis of a claim brought under a hostility to religion theory. There is no question that the government neutrality required under the Establishment Clause is violated as much by government disapproval of religion as it is by government approval of religion. Thus, the Court must apply the Lemon test to determine whether Corbett made statements in class that were improperly hostile to or disapproving of religion in general, or of Christianity in particular.
The lesson is not restricted to such blatant cases, however. It is clear that a government teacher could not teach that philosophical naturalism is true, as that would clearly render most religions false. And it is more than doubtful that a public school teacher could teach that science was true while, at the same time maintaining that it was in conflict with most religions, since that which is in conflict with the truth is, necessarily, false.
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Comments:
John,

How can high school science teachers get away with saying that evolution is true, since that statement is logically equivalent to saying that many forms of creationism are superstitious nonsense?
 
How can high school science teachers get away with saying that evolution is true, since that statement is logically equivalent to saying that many forms of creationism are superstitious nonsense?

It isn't equivalenyt to saying that many forms of creationism are superstitious nonsense. It's equivalent to saying they are possibly slightly mistaken, but they shouldn't take it personally, and have some quiche please.

Say what you want, but don't say they are "superstitious nonsense", or the judge will get mad. (I guess.)

However I am also perplexed by the broad interpretation expressed in this post!
 
To repeat here a comment I left at Larry's place:

It's a little tricky but I'll try to explain. Teaching science is a legitimate secular purpose of government. If, incidental to that -- i.e. not as the purpose of the lesson -- something is taught that some religion finds contradicts its dogma, the secular purpose controls. But, if the intent of the lesson is to show that some religion or belief is false, that means that the purpose is not secular, but religious / theological / philosophical. For example, if a lesson on geology teaches the age of the Earth is 4.5 billion years and that the geological history of the last 6,000 years does not include a global flood, the purpose is secular. If the lesson is that science disproves the biblical account, that is a religious purpose. As you can imagine, this can be difficult to determine in practice, which is why accommodationist statements by scientific organizations can be legally helpful in the US.

It is not necessary to a science lesson to teach that science and religion are in conflict and the purpose of including such a statement could only be to attack the students' religious beliefs, which is most definitely not a secular purpose.

(On the use of the phrase "superstitious nonsense")

The real issue (on the first prong of the Lemon test) is the government intent. The more blatant the nature of the attack on a religious belief, the easier it is to determine the intent. But subtle attacks are also prohibited.
 
This ruling does muddy the waters considerably, though, and makes it even tougher for good science teachers to teach good science. I can easily imagine threats of nuisance suits alleging denigration of religious belief based on just teaching that the earth is 4.5 billion years old or teaching common descent. The "purpose" prong of the Lemon test (along with the 'excessive entanglement' prong) is real problematic now.
 
The good news is that the court threw out claims of hostility such as these:

"Therefore, no creation, unless you invoke magic. Science doesn't invoke magic. If we can't explain something, we do not uphold that position. It's not, ooh, then magic. That's not the way we work."

"Contrast that with creationists. They never try to disprove creationism. They're all running around trying to prove it. That's deduction. It's not science. Scientifically, it's nonsense."

It noted:

Even if one could infer religious disapproval from the above comments, a reasonable observer would find that the primary effect of Corbett's statements above was to distinguish generally accepted scientific reasoning from religious belief and to illustrate a historical shift from religious to scientific thinking. ...

Here, Corbett not only indicated that the scientific principles were true, but also affirmatively suggested that the literal interpretation of the Bible was not true. This goes one step beyond Epperson and could be construed as expressing affirmative disapproval of religious beliefs. Examining the full context of the discussion, however, a reasonable observer would find that the statements had the primary effect of describing the secularization in thinking over time due to increasing belief in scientific principles
.

There is room to discuss the history and nature of science without excessive self-censorship but the focus has to stay on science not religion.
 
That's a good point, John, though getting the distinction across to beleaguered public school science teachers could be tough. They're under enormous pressure already in many districts -- it's easier for them to just avoid the whole topic rather than risk skating close to some fuzzy boundary.
 
I agree with your post, John. Teachers should teach in a religion-blind way without worrying one way or the other whether some (or even a large number) of students have religious views that happen to be in conflict with well-established claims from science, or history, or wherever. You can't anticipate all the things that some religion or other may teach, but it's up to the students to sort out the incompatibility, not for the teacher to editorialise on it. (I also, notoriously by now, think that that's the best stance for science organisations to take, but for somewhat different reasons.)

Nice post, anyway.

Since my own post on the subject, I've read the whole judgment, and think that the judge went to some lengths to maintain a broad area of pedagogical discretion. This particular teacher was really pushing the envelope, and I don't think that someone who wasn't doing that would have too much trouble.
 
In my view, John has explained the legal position with admirable clarity.

Quite obviously, science teachers should confine themselves to teaching science and refrain from commenting on any religious implications of that science or offering their personal opinions on religion while acting in their capacity as government-employed teachers.

Of greater concern, perhaps, is where science teachers are intimidated into not referring to certain elements of the science curriculum - most commonly evolution - by parents who do not want their children taught things that they believe are in conflict with their faith.

If parents are entitled to decide what their children should learn and if local people are entitled to decide the curricula taught in their schools, where does that leave science teachers who are being required to teach things that they know to be misleading or wrong?
 
... if local people are entitled to decide the curricula taught in their schools, where does that leave science teachers who are being required to teach things that they know to be misleading or wrong?

An interesting question. It leaves them in the same boat as John Peloza, who was also convinced that he was being forced to teach something that was wrong. To be blunt, you follow the curricula, work to change it or find another job. Our courts won't help you (and I'm not sure they should).
 
"Of greater concern, perhaps, is where science teachers are intimidated into not referring to certain elements of the science curriculum - most commonly evolution - by parents who do not want their children taught things that they believe are in conflict with their faith."

It's not helped by statements like:

"And it is more than doubtful that a public school teacher could teach that science was true while, at the same time maintaining that it was in conflict with most religions, since that which is in conflict with the truth is, necessarily, false."

Aside from the inability of "science" to be true since it is a method, there's nothing in the decision to suggest that stating as true any scientific theory or observation is, on it's own, unconstitutional. After reading the decision I was amazed that anyone could see the amount of leeway Corbett was given to say things that painted various religions, religious views and religious persons in a bad light and come out thinking that the judgement should produce a chill. It shouldn't, at least in the absence of either spin or panic.

Chill folks.
 
Aside from the inability of "science" to be true since it is a method, there's nothing in the decision to suggest that stating as true any scientific theory or observation is, on it's own, unconstitutional.

Quite correct. It is the other half of the formula ... that religion is, in general, contradicted by science ... that would be the problematic statement if made by a public school teacher. It's also a statement I think a science teacher on the government payroll has no business making.
 
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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