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Suit targets history teacher’s comments

Times Staff Writer

A San Juan Capistrano high school student and his parents filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging that his history teacher violated his constitutional rights by making “highly inappropriate” and offensive statements in class regarding Christianity.

James Corbett, who teaches Advanced Placement European history at Capistrano Valley High School, consistently “demonstrates a sense of hostility toward religion,” causing Christian students to “feel ostracized and treated as second-class citizens,” according to the lawsuit filed in federal district court in Santa Ana by Chad Farnan, 16, and his parents, Bill and Teresa.

The lawsuit contends, among other things, that Corbett told students during class that “when you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth”; said that religion is not “connected with morality”; compared Christians to “Muslim fundamentalists” who want women to “stay pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen and have babies until your body collapses”; and suggested that churchgoers are more likely to commit rape and murder.

Corbett did not return a call for comment.

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Capistrano Valley High School Principal Tom Ressler described Corbett as a “solid” teacher who has been with the Capistrano Unified School District for more than 15 years. Ressler said Corbett’s class was popular among Advanced Placement students and has a high pass rate.

“It’s really premature to say anything about this,” he said of the allegations in the lawsuit. “We have to digest what they’re saying. People can make allegations all they want; we have to see the reality and context of what was said.”

Teresa Farnan said her suspicions were aroused on the first day of school when her son -- a sophomore honors student required to take Corbett’s class for college admission -- asked her whether America was founded on Christian values, which he said his teacher had denied.

“He had learned in the eighth grade that our country was founded by persecuted Christians,” said the mother, who describes her family as nondenominational Christian, “so I sent him to school with a tape recorder.”

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During the next two months, Chad Farnan said, he taped Corbett’s lectures with the recorder in plain sight on his backpack.

“I’m not sure whether he saw me,” the student said. “He’s against Christianity and bashes it all the time. He’s been indoctrinating us and not teaching the class; we don’t need to be hearing his political views during school time when we should be learning.”

Eventually the Farnans contacted Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a nonprofit organization based in Murrieta dedicated to “protecting religious liberty,” a spokeswoman said.

The group filed the lawsuit on the family’s behalf, attorney Jennifer Monk said, because it believed Corbett’s behavior violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“The teacher is a representative of the state and the Constitution requires government neutrality toward religion,” she said. “This teacher’s conduct and words clearly show he is hostile toward religion and is indoctrinating these kids, who are a captive audience.”

The lawsuit -- based entirely on Corbett’s comments during one Oct. 19 class that the Farnans describe as typical -- asks that the teacher be removed from the classroom.

“This is not a debate or a conversation; it’s a diatribe,” Monk said of Corbett’s lecture. We will not seek damages if the teacher is removed.”

Chad Farnan, who attended Corbett’s class until the lawsuit was filed, said Wednesday that he would remain in school but stay out of the class until the matter is settled.

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“He just wouldn’t feel comfortable,” Monk said.

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david.haldane@latimes.com


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