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James Corbett Has Qualified Immunity in Establishment Clause Claim

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that a teacher who made allegedly hostile comments about religion in the classroom has qualified immunity from a student's Establishment Clause violation lawsuit.

In the case, Chad Farnan, a former public high school student alleged that his history teacher, Dr. James Corbett, violated his rights under the Establishment Clause by making comments during an Advanced Placement European History class (AP Euro) that were hostile to religion in general, and to Christianity in particular.

Corbett, who aimed to create provocative historical discussions in his classroom, told his students that he encouraged a "full range of views," and that students' comments would not impact his attitude toward them or their grades.

Farnan did not challenge Corbett's contention, or offer evidence that Corbett treated students espousing religious beliefs differently. (For what it's worth, Corbett maintained in the suit that he is a Christian who attends church and prays regularly.) Instead, Farnan withdrew from Corbett's class before completing the first semester of AP Euro because he was offended by Corbett's comments about religion.

While both parties agreed that a teacher cannot cover European history without discussing religion, Farnan's lawsuit implied that it was unnecessary for Corbett to make comments like, "When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can't see the truth."

The Ninth Circuit, mindful that there had never been any prior reported case holding that a teacher violated the Constitution under comparable circumstances, affirmed the district court's conclusion that the teacher is entitled to qualified immunity. Because the court found that Corbett had qualified immunity, it did not address the constitutionality of his allegedly offensive statements.

What do you think about this decision? Should teachers be protected with qualified immunity for making statements in class that offend students' personal beliefs? If James Corbett had not received qualified immunity, would his comments have run afoul of the Establishment Clause?

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