The U.S. Supreme Court will not hear the case of a former student represented by a Murrieta law firm who sued his history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School for disparaging Christians, justices decided Tuesday.
This means an in what they say in the classroom will stand.
“The Supreme Court’s denial of review ends the litigation,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, appellate attorney for teacher James Corbett and dean of UC Irvine’s law school. “I am pleased that the lawsuit against Dr. Corbett is over and that he has prevailed.”
A little more than a year ago, lawyers for Chad Farnan, now a student at Pepperdine University in Malibu, and Corbett headed to Pasadena
Farnan had sued Corbett for telling students, among other things, during a 2007 classroom lecture at the Mission Viejo school that "when you put on your Jesus glasses, you can't see the truth," and that religion is not "connected with morality."
A lower court judge, District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana ruled in May 2009 that one of the statements Farnan recorded during Corbett’s classes violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Six months after hearing the arguments from both sides, the three-member appellate panel decided in August that Corbett could not be sued over classroom comments ridiculing Christianity, but the judges sidestepped the question of whether the remarks themselves were unconstitutional.
Because previous court cases have never established how far a teacher can go in criticizing religion, history teacher James Corbett couldn't have known if he was crossing a line, the panel said.
That is now the rule of the land in the 9th Circuit, which covers nine Western states and two U.S. territories.
“I think that the victory for Dr. Corbett is a victory for teachers and academic freedom,” Chemerinsky said. “Allowing teachers to be sued for what they say in the classroom would set a dangerous precedent that would chill speech and even discourage people from being teachers.”
The law firm said in an emailed statement Friday its client "had to endure almost daily statements from his teacher that Chad argued were an unconstitutional attack on Christianity and religion."
"We are disappointed that the highest Court in our nation will not hear this important case," Advocates said, "and we agree with Douglas Laycock, a constitutional scholar at the University of Virginia School of Law, who was quoted last year in the Orange County Register:
"They can't hold the teacher liable because the law was not clearly settled. Because they can't hold him liable, the law will never become clear on what teachers can say in class."
"Please join us in prayer as we continue to work in defense of the religious and individual freedoms of our students," the statement continued.
Reached by phone, Corbett told Patch he's glad the case is over, but it's hard to celebrate.
"It's like getting hit in the head. You don't want to be happy you're not getting hit in the head anymore. You just wish you didn't get hit in the head," he said.
While the case is concluded for Farnan, Corbett said he may work on legislation to stop frivolous lawsuits. He will be facing Assemblywoman Diane Harkey as the Democrat candidate for the 73rd state Assembly District, he said.
"Really, did we have to go to court in this at all? No. All he needed to do is come up to me and say, 'Hey I have a problem,' " Corbett said.
Between the student's lack of communication and his lawyers efforts to use the case as a fund-raising vehicle for their legal ministry, "that's the definition of a frivolous lawsuit," he said.
"It could have been settled so easily," Corbett said.