Can Teachers Criticize Creationism in Class?

08/30/2011 08:37 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

Should a teacher be sued for describing creationism as "superstitious nonsense"?

This question involves a lawsuit against California history teacher James Corbett. In 2007, a former student sued Corbett for a pattern of hostility "toward religion and favoring irreligion over religion." The student produced secret recordings of Corbett as evidence.

In 2009, a judge considered Corbett's statements and found only one -- that creationism is "superstitious nonsense" -- to be an "improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause," and therefore an infringement of the student's rights. To the amazement of educators and scientists across the country, the court ruled against Corbett and found this one statement in class to have been unconstitutional.

One issue raised by this case is how far educators should modify class content to anticipate potential offense to the faith of their students. In a public school classroom filled with students from a variety of religions and backgrounds, there is a good chance of offending someone in some way. If teachers are at risk of being sued every time they make a factual statement, it may have a chilling effect: "Teachers can avoid [risk] by not talking about these issues at all," according to UC Irvine law professor Rachel Moran.

Is this the kind of education we want? Let's explore the implications of this with some hypotheticals:

  • An earth sciences teacher informs a class that the fossil record shows evolution across billions of years. A young-earth creationist student objects, claiming that his religious rights have been violated; he supports a 6,000-year-old earth with little or no evolution.
  • An astronomy teacher explains that the universe began about 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang. A student objects on religious grounds, asserting that this contradicts her faith.
  • A psychology professor explains scientific ideas about how the mind functions, and by way of contrast, explains how Scientology's claims about the mind are unsupported by scientific research. A Scientologist student objects, claiming religious discrimination. (The IRS recognizes Scientology as a religion in terms of taxation.)

There are many such examples of how some religious views might clash with normal classroom content. Supporters of the Nation of Islam hold that white people were invented 6,000 years ago by an evil scientist named Yakub. Adherents to New Age religions think crystals have magical power to heal. Should teachers refrain from presenting any information that contradicts these beliefs? Should teachers not correct such misconceptions, for fear of being sued by indignant students?

If teachers avoid addressing misconceptions, or omit important topics in the classroom out of fear of giving offense, this becomes education to the lowest common denominator, putting lawsuit anxiety -- rather than education quality -- in control of classroom content.

The classroom should be a place to challenge students with new ideas and new viewpoints. The experience of education should cause one to re-examine one's assumptions -- especially the most important ones. When I think of my education, I remember shuffling from one to class to the next to learn from professors who held contradictory, mutually-exclusive viewpoints; a morning seminar with an avowed Marxist might be followed by a lecture from an avowed libertarian. My teachers never agreed with each other, and that was a good thing. One has to figure the world out for oneself, without authorities and with little guidance. Challenging students should be regarded as beneficial to the mind -- not cause for legal action.

Such legal action operates under the assumption that science is just another viewpoint, another form of religion, and therefore favoring one faith over another in public schools constitutes discrimination. Creationist Nancy Pearcey illuminated this reasoning in her book Total Truth:

Religion is already in the classroom -- because naturalistic evolution is itself a religion or worldview ... To promote one faith in the public school system at public expense, while banning the other, is an example of viewpoint discrimination, which the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional.

But science is not a "viewpoint." The powerful thing about science is that it operates independent of the observer; force equals mass times acceleration whether one is Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or atheist. Moreover, to claim that evolution is a religion reveals deep ignorance both of science and theology -- exactly the kind of ignorance fixable by good teachers who help their students recognize nonsense.

While schools must respect the religious rights of all students, teachers such as James Corbett should not be penalized for presenting relevant classroom information, even if the way that information is conveyed might hurt some feelings. Suing in such a case is grossly out of proportion to the alleged offense.

Indeed, on August 19, 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision against Corbett. One can only hope that in the future teachers will be feel free to focus on the difficult and important task of teaching, rather than worrying that their students are going to sue them.