Supporters rally for O.C. history teacher

Capistrano Valley High 2005 alumni Gianna DeCaro, 20, far left, joins current students Lauren Stoll, 17, center, and Jamie Barriga, 17, during a rally in support of history teacher James Corbett.
Capistrano Valley High 2005 alumni Gianna DeCaro, 20, far left, joins current students Lauren Stoll, 17, center, and Jamie Barriga, 17, during a rally in support of history teacher James Corbett.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

About 300 former and current Capistrano Valley High students rallied Wednesday in support of a teacher accused of making anti-Christian statements in the classroom.

Boosters of James Corbett, an Advanced Placement European history teacher, lined both sides of the street in front of the Mission Viejo campus, chanting “support free speech” and holding signs that read, “He Made Us Think,” “Irish Catholic Supports Dr. Corbett” and “Who Would Jesus Sue?”

The 90-minute rally came a week after student Chad Farnan, 16, and his parents filed a lawsuit alleging that Corbett had violated the student’s constitutional rights by making “highly inappropriate” and offensive statements in class regarding Christianity.

Denis Gibbs, a 33-year-old former student of Corbett’s, showed up at the rally to support the teacher carrying a “Republicans for Free Speech and Corbett” sign.

“Dr. Corbett was one of the best instructors I ever had,” Gibbs said. “He taught values that make America great: freedom of thought, freedom of speech and hard work.”

Down the street, two smaller groups gathered in support of Farnan, who gained national attention by appearing on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox network television show and several Christian radio shows.

Vanessa Farnan, Chad’s 20-year-old sister, said she wasn’t surprised to see so many people rallying for Corbett.

“These are all people who know him,” she said. “There’s a lot of people backing Chad, too. We’re getting calls from all over the world. It’s pretty cool.”

She said the family filed the lawsuit as a last resort.

“We just want him to stop,” she said while holding a sign that read “Stop Dr. Corbett’s Intolerance.” “If he wants to teach like that, he should be at a university.”

Corbett, a teacher in Capistrano Valley Unified District for nearly 20 years, has not commented publicly since the lawsuit was filed. The district released a statement this week saying it was “reviewing this situation as we do with any parental concern.”

“We also respect the rights and responsibilities of our professional staff. Dr. Corbett has been teaching for many years and has a strong record of ensuring student achievement, as demonstrated by Advanced Placement test scores,” the statement read.

“It is important to know the context of the situation. We don’t want to prejudge any of the facts.”

At the heart of the Farnans’ lawsuit is a tape recording from what they said is a class lesson Corbett taught Oct. 19. The lawsuit notes that Corbett told students that “when you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth,” and that religion is not “connected with morality.”

Many of those attending the rally didn’t deny that Corbett often uses such phrases during lectures to emphasize a point.

“He’s all about opening people’s minds,” said Rachel Evans, a former student of Corbett’s who recently graduated from UCLA with two music degrees. “It’s hard to teach European history without being somewhat critical of organized religion. But aren’t we supposed to learn from our mistakes? Isn’t that why we study history?”

Shawn Heavlin-Martinez, a Capistrano Valley sophomore, is enrolled in the class Farnan had been attending until he filed his lawsuit. Shawn, a Quaker, said he had not been insulted by any of Corbett’s remarks regarding organized religion.

. “Everything he says about religion is relevant to what he teaches,” he said.

Ali Coyle, a senior who took Corbett’s class two years ago, said the attacks on Corbett had been “surprising and frustrating” for many of his former students. Coyle came to the protest carrying the “Irish Catholic Supports Dr. Corbett” sign.

“For hundreds of years the church was corrupt, and that has to be discussed,” she said. “I was never offended by what he said, and I’m an Irish Catholic.”

Others rallying on Corbett’s behalf included his daughter Quinn, who declined to comment.

While Corbett’s supporters chanted his name and blared car horns as they drove by the school, Wiley S. Drake, a Buena Park clergyman, passed through the crowd with a microphone interviewing protesters for his Internet radio show. Drake, a former national leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, called on the school to fire Corbett.

“I’m tired of being criticized and ostracized for being a Christian. I’m glad Chad filed his suit. It’s time we Christians fought back,” Drake said.