A federal appeals court ruled Friday that a California teacher could not be sued for criticizing Christianity and Creationism during a college-level European history course.
“This was a really important ruling for academic freedom,” University of California constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, who took on the case pro bono, told The Orange County Register. “There has never been a precedent set for something like this before. Teachers should be able to criticize religion just like they can criticize government, business and similar groups without the fear of being sued.”
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out a lower court’s decision, which held that teacher James Corbett violated a student’s First Amendment rights by making comments during class that were hostile to religion in general, and to Christianity in particular.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that Corbett could not have known he was violating a constitutional right, noting there were no prior cases holding that a teacher violated the First Amendment by criticizing religion during class.
Corbett said during his class that serfs opposed social, political and economic that were in their best interest because of religion, compared Creationism to “magic,” and made twenty other comments that then-sophomore Chad Farnan alleged were disparaging to Christians.
Farnan dropped out of the class and sued Corbett in 2007.
“In broaching controversial issues like religion, teachers must be sensitive to students’ personal beliefs and take care not to abuse their positions of authority,” the court wrote in its decision (PDF). “But teachers must also be given leeway to challenge students to foster critical thinking skills and develop their analytical abilities.”
“This balance is hard to achieve, and we must be careful not to curb intellectual freedom by imposing dogmatic restrictions that chill teachers from adopting the pedagogical methods they believe are most effective.”
Robert Tyler, a lawyer with the Faith and Freedom legal organization who represented Farnan, said he would appeal to case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme court, if necessary.