Dr. James Corbett is a teacher of Advanced Placement European History at Capistrano Valley High School. He was recently sued by one of his students who claimed that he “repeatedly made disparaging and religiously intolerant remarks about Christians during class.”
According to an article in the Orange County Register, the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages and attorney fees, says Corbett typically spent “a large portion of class time propagating his personal views to a captive audience.” He railed against Christianity and Christian viewpoints on topics such as birth control, teenage sex, homosexuality and erectile dysfunction, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiff tape recorded Corbett’s lectures, including statements such as, “Conservatives don’t want women to avoid pregnancies – that’s interfering with God’s work” and “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.” Another one: “When you pray for divine intervention, you’re hoping that the spaghetti monster will help you get what you want.”
Corbett and his lawyers say that these quotes are taken out of context. Hundreds of Corbett’s former students have come forward to defend him, saying that his teaching style was to encourage discussion and debate, and that he often made provocative statements to stimulate his students.
I heard Dr. Corbett give a talk yesterday to the Orange County chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I can understand why his students love him…and how he could be a source of controversy. He is an outspoken guy with strong opinions. He crackles with energy. I would love to take one of his classes. It also became clear that he is fearless and is not intimidated by the lawsuit at all. Before his talk, he told me that the plaintiff had repeatedly offered to drop the lawsuit if he would change the way he teaches the class, leaving out religious references, and if he would apologize to his class and take sensitivity training. He refused, saying, “They picked this fight, and they got one. Any settlement would be an admission of guilt which would prevent a countersuit, so there will be no quarter given on my part.”
His talk, which was given to a standing-room-only crowd, was a barn burner. He did not discuss the lawsuit at all, saying that his lawyers had advised him to avoid saying anything that could jeopardize the case. Instead he talked about…what else…European history, and in particular the influence of religion and religious myths. This is clearly a subject that Dr. Corbett knows well, and he led his listeners through the history of myths, starting with Greek mythology, Roman Gods, and finally the myths of modern religions, particularly Christianity. His overarching thesis was that religions and their associated myths were used by the ruling powers to control their subjects.
He made a passing reference to the lawsuit, noting that he had been asked to leave religion out of his lectures. He said it was impossible to discuss history without talking about religion, and that historically, religion was responsible for a lot of persecution and oppression. To gloss over that, he said, is to condone it, and he could not do that.
Then he moved on to discuss early American history, where he addressed two myths: First, that our nation was founded by devout Christians; and second, that early settlers came here to escape from religious persecution.
He illustrated the falsity of the first by quoting extensively from the writings of four of the most prominent founders of our nation…Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin. It is common knowledge that none of these men were Christians. What is not so well known is that they had a low opinion of Christianity and its effect on the populace. One quote that Corbett gave from James Madison illustrates this:
“During almost fifteen centuries which Christianity had been on trial: What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”
I would quibble with Corbett a bit on this. Madison’s original statement started:
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial…”
The distinction I make is that Madison was not criticizing Christianity. He was arguing for separation of church and state, and against any government sponsorship of religion. Still, Corbett’s point is valid, that Madison was not a Christian and favored a secular government, not a “Christian Nation.”
The second American myth that he attacked is the idea that the Puritans came here to escape religious persecution. I think all our elementary school history books give this view. But he says that the Puritans came to the Americas from England via Holland, having left England because they failed to “purify the Anglican church of ‘Catholic’ influences.” Even Holland, the most tolerant country in the world, then and now, was too open for the Puritans. And make no mistake, Corbett says, the Puritans were viciously intolerant of differing religious beliefs. They attacked the Quakers, labeling them agents of Satan, and of course, everybody knows about the Salem witch trials. He gave several examples of the Puritans’ oppression and cruelty toward their own followers, as well.
The theme throughout Corbett’s talk was that religion, rather than a unifying force in society, has been a divisive one throughout history. It is easy to see how this theme offended devout Christian students. He was contradicting the Christian worldview they had been subjected to all their lives. Did Corbett overstep the limits of academic freedom? It will be interesting to see what the courts decide. He is optimistic, saying that he is certain that he will be vindicated. Further, he says that he is considering filing a countersuit against the plaintiff. He did not specify the grounds for the countersuit, but harassment and intimidation seem justified.
It is easy to like this guy, and admire his principled and courageous stand for what he considers his academic freedom and his integrity as a teacher. If he were a little less confrontational, a bit more politically correct, maybe this controversy would not have escalated to a lawsuit. But that is not his style. I wish him well.
I wrote this piece in 2008, and I thought it would be interesting to see what has transpired since then with Corbett’s lawsuit. In 2009, a federal judge in Santa Ana, CA ruled that Corbett had violated the First Amendment rights of the plaintiff, a student in his class. That decision was overturned by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011. In 2012, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that decision. That did not end the controversy. Constitutional scholars on both sides of the issue weighed in, and there are some ambiguities in the Court’s decision. You can read about it in this 2012 article from the Orange County Register.
Corbett continued to teach at Capistrano Valley High School until he retired in 2016. I cannot find any record of whether he countersued, or whether he changed the content of his classes as a result of the lawsuit.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.