22 December 2007

Something Indefensible?

From Bill O'Reilly at Fox News comes a strange report about a teacher presenting his religious views in a public classroom. Preaching, as it were, rather than teaching. Usually O'Reilly seems to have no problem with teachers evangelizing their classes, but in this case he is opposed to it. What is the difference? In this case the teacher in question, James Corbett of Capistrano Valley High, instead of promoting some variety of fundamentalist Christianity in his classroom, is accused of promoting anti-Christianity.

A student in James Corbett's Advanced Placement European History class, Chad Farnan, complains that he "demonstrates a sense of hostility toward religion," which makes his Christian students "feel ostracized and treated as second-class citizens". [source] The student's parents are suing over the issue, demanding that the teacher be fired.

Background

The LATimes reports:

Capistrano Valley High School Principal Tom Ressler described Corbett as a "solid" teacher who has been with the Capistrano Unified School District for more than 15 years. Ressler said Corbett's class was popular among Advanced Placement students and has a high pass rate.
...Teresa Farnan said her suspicions were aroused on the first day of school when her son -- a sophomore honors student required to take Corbett's class for college admission -- asked her whether America was founded on Christian values, which he said his teacher had denied.
"He had learned in the eighth grade that our country was founded by persecuted Christians," said the mother, who describes her family as nondenominational Christian, "so I sent him to school with a tape recorder."
During the next two months, Chad Farnan said, he taped Corbett's lectures with the recorder in plain sight on his backpack.
...Eventually the Farnans contacted Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a nonprofit organization based in Murrieta dedicated to "protecting religious liberty," a spokeswoman said.
The group filed the lawsuit on the family's behalf, attorney Jennifer Monk said, because it believed Corbett's behavior violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"The teacher is a representative of the state and the Constitution requires government neutrality toward religion," she said. "This teacher's conduct and words clearly show he is hostile toward religion and is indoctrinating these kids, who are a captive audience."
The lawsuit -- based entirely on Corbett's comments during one Oct. 19 class that the Farnans describe as typical -- asks that the teacher be removed from the classroom. "We will not seek damages if the teacher is removed," Monk said.

Chad Farnan is quoted as saying "He's against Christianity and bashes it all the time. He's been indoctrinating us and not teaching the class; we don't need to be hearing his political views during school time when we should be learning."

The Recording

Unfortunately I haven't been able to find any posting of the actual recording. Bill O'Reilly transcribes a couple of excerpts:

How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach. When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can't see the truth.
Conservatives don't want women to avoid pregnancies. That's interfering with God's work. You've got to stay pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen and have babies until your body collapses.

The news stories also say that he:

said that religion is not "connected with morality";
compared Christians to "Muslim fundamentalists"
suggested that churchgoers are more likely to commit rape and murder.

Analysis

At first glance this story seems to be the mirror image of the Coach Packy story (see here and here). The thing is, though, the available excerpts simply don't support the claims being made. Putting on my historian glasses for the moment, I would note that it is a commonplace that irrational factors (religion, patriotism, and the like) are used to move people to take actions against their own best interest. Now no doubt the teacher could have phrased this in less colorful and more politically correct words, and maybe the idea sounds shocking to a naive 16-year-old raised on the modern myth that "America was founded on Christian values", but there's nothing in it constituting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

As for the comment about conservatives not wanting women to avoid pregnancies, what of it? One news story suggests that this was part of the comparison of Christian to Muslim fundamentalists, in which case it is entirely accurate. (Conservatives in both groups have been opposed to the prevention of pregnancies; this is a matter of fact, not opinion.) It may well be an example of the teacher inserting comments on modern issues rather than sticking to European history, but it doesn't infringe on anybody's religious rights. (There is no right to ignorance, though many fundamentalists seem to think there is.) If the issue is the negative tone the teacher takes, it seems to me to be warranted--just as one might take a negative tone on the subject of slavery, female genital mutilation, and other practices sanctioned by one religion or another in the past. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists may be legitimately compared; the similarities and differences among the groups are instructive; lacking the context I really can't say whether there was something unjustified in the comparison.

As for the others, well, religion and morality are separate, though often confused, and I say bravo to the teacher for reminding his class of the fact. I don't understand why that should even be in there. Also that last comment about rape and murder needs a context--churchgoers are more likely to commit rape and murder than whom? Non-churchgoers? The population as a whole? Or what? As it stands, it appears to be a mere statistic. If the student and his parents can show that it was a bogus statistic that was part of an anti-Christian tirade not connected to the subject of European history, then they may have a point, but if so they should have presented the relevant parts of the tirade, rather than this irrelevant point.

As it stands, this looks to me like another example of a frivolous lawsuit emanating from conservative Christians attempting to impose their values on others. Of course I'm assuming that they put their strongest stuff out in front; if they have evidence to support their claims of anti-Christian discrimination, they really ought to present it first, rather than this irrelevant fluff. Perhaps James Corbett could use some sensitivity training in dealing with religiously confused and factually challenged students, or something like that, but there is nothing whatsoever in the material cited to "show he is hostile toward religion and is indoctrinating these kids, who are a captive audience", in something or other, as charged by Jennifer Monk, who speaks for the organization representing the family. If new material surfaces, that actually supports this claim, then I will revisit this issue, but for the moment I have to file this under frivolous lawsuits.

[Oh, yes, and before I forget, a special thanks to Archaeoporn, whose blog turned me on to this story.]

3 comments:

Archaeologyknits said...

I am really glad to see that you got the entire quote about Jesus Glasses, as it certainly does show the importance of context.
" How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach. When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can't see the truth."

Just makes me think of some of Weber's critiques of religion which are now classic.
As for the pregnant comment, that seems to be right along the lines of what Mike Huckabee has been quoted as saying, and he's certainly a fundamentalist Christian.

Anonymous said...

Why must you hateful leftists lie to promote your fascist agenda?
First you lie that nothing this hateful, intolerant teacher did was wrong. That was your first lie. Had he made derogatory comments about homosexuals, blacks, or liberals, you would have attacked him viciously.

Your next lie was to pretend that atheists are "rational" and Christians are not. Please stop the lying.

Next you lie that Christianity is not in a person's own best interests. Your ignorance is deep and wide, as shown by your reprehensible dishonesty.

There is no need to go further with you. You are unable to think rationally, even though you claim otherwise.

sbh said...

Get a grip, anonymous from Irvine California. Do you have any evidence of something hateful or intolerant that this teacher did? Evidence is much more persuasive than name-calling.

Also--what makes you think I'm either an atheist or a leftist? You badly missed the boat on those points. I've known a good many rational Christians, by the way, including my teachers back when I took classes in Theology in California, but you--assuming that you claim to be some kind of Christian--probably wouldn't qualify. Or maybe you're having an off day.

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