June 1, 2009

Is Disparaging Atheism a Constitutional Violation?

Capistrano Valley High SchoolImage via Wikipedia

I trust that you remember the case of Chad Farnan, a Christian student at Capistrano Valley High School in California, who accused his AP history teacher of making disparaging remarks about Christianity in class. At the time news of Farnan's complaint first surfaced in 2008, I noted that it was difficult to see hostility to Christianity in the teacher's alleged comments. I also suggested that the case seemed to be more about Christian privilege in our nation's schools than anything else. As I am sure you have heard by now, the case has traversed the legal system, and a decision has been rendered. In this post, I'll not simply rehash the decision but instead consider one of the possible implications for atheism.

As you know, the judge in this case ruled that teacher James Corbett's description of creationism as "superstitious nonsense" violated the U.S. Constitution in that it counted as "derogatory, disparaging and belittling regarding religion and Christianity in particular." As I understand it, this was a church-state issue because Corbett made this statement during class at a public high school. As a government employee, he is not permitted to disparage religion any more than he would be permitted to promote it.

This is a groundbreaking case with which all atheists should familiarize themselves. As recently noted in the Guardian:
Farnan's lawyer, Jennifer Monk, who works for a not-for-profit Christian law firm, Advocates for Faith and Freedom, told the Guardian yesterday that Farnan's victory was the first of its kind, proving that the establishment clause applied equally to the disapproval of religion as it did to the promotion of religion.
Yes, I have a feeling I know what you are thinking at this point. You and I know full well that government employees promote religion in general and Christianity in particular as part of their officials duties all the time without any legal consequences. Sad but true. However, this is not what I want to address in this post.

Instead, I'd like to maintain the focus on the student-teacher interaction in our public schools. I'd like us to consider the situation in which a teacher made disparaging remarks about atheists or atheism during class. Furthermore, I'd like us to assume that a student was upset by this and decided to file a complaint. If such a scenario strikes you as far fetched, I encourage you to remember that some students are in fact willing to stand up in opposition to the promotion of religion in their schools.

If we imagine a complaint about a public school teacher making disparaging remarks about atheists or atheism making its way to court, I wonder if this would in fact be recognized as a Constitutional issue. Does the fact that atheism is not a religion change the outcome of such a case? Do we lose protection under the law because atheism is not a religion?

H/T to Austin Cline