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The Critic's Resource on AntiEvolution

NCSE Evolution Education Update for 2009/05/15

(by NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch)

Dear Friends of NCSE,

NCSE urged the federal government to promote and protect scientific
integrity, particularly with reference to its informal education
projects. And a teacher's description of creationism as "superstitious
nonsense" was ruled to be unconstitutional by a federal court.


NCSE recently offered its advice on ways the federal government can
promote and protect scientific integrity. The comment will be
considered as presidential science advisor John Holdren and the Office
of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) develop regulations
implementing President Obama's March 9, 2009, memorandum ordering
federal agencies to "ensur[e] the highest level of integrity in all
aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and
technological processes."

The order specifically asks the OSTP to recommend regulations
protecting scientific staff from political litmus tests in hiring and
firing, ensuring scientific integrity of internal processes, requiring
that information used in policy-making "be subject to well-established
scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate," making
scientific findings publicly available, and generally "ensur[ing] the
integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on
which the agency relies in its decisionmaking or otherwise uses or

NCSE's comment to the OSTP focuses on educational materials used in
informal education at federal facilities, citing reports of
creationist books offered for sale at Grand Canyon National Park
bookstores and of a political appointee at NASA demanding that the Big
Bang be called a "theory" on public websites because "it is not proven
fact; it is opinion." It also expresses concern about reports of
creationism being taught at schools directly administered by the
federal government.

The comment concludes: "Establishing clear policies protecting the
accuracy of formal and informal educational content provided by the
federal government is necessary to ensure the long-term integrity of
science. Such content prepares the next generation of federal
scientists, and is vital to constituents as they evaluate
science-based policies. In particular, agencies should develop
policies that provide for scientists and educators to peer review
material and to protect potentially controversial topics from
political or religious pressure."

For the complete text of NCSE's comment, visit:

For the president's memorandum, visit:

For the OSTP's call for comments, visit:

For NCSE's most recent update of events at Grand Canyon National Park, visit:

For NCSE's report on the situation at NASA, visit:


A teacher's description of creationism as "superstitious nonsense" was
ruled to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by a
federal judge in a decision in C. F. et al. v. Capistrano Unified
School District et al., issued on May 1, 2009. James Corbett, a
twenty-year teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo,
California, was accused by a student, Chad Farnan, of "repeatedly
promoting hostility toward Christians in class and advocating
'irreligion over religion' in violation of the First Amendment's
establishment clause," according to the Orange County Register (May 1,
2009). "Farnan's lawsuit had cited more than 20 inflammatory
statements attributed to Corbett, including 'Conservatives don't want
women to avoid pregnancies -- that's interfering with God's work' and
'When you pray for divine intervention, you're hoping that the
spaghetti monster will help you get what you want.'"

In his decision in the case, however, Judge James Selna of the United
States District Court, Central District Court of California,
identified only one of the statements as constitutionally
impermissible, writing:


The Court turns first to Corbett's statement regarding John Peloza ...
This statement presents the closest question for the Court in
assessing secular purpose. Peloza apparently brought suit against
Corbett because Corbett was the advisor to a student newspaper which
ran an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion rather
than science in his classroom. ... Corbett explained to his class that
Peloza, a teacher, "was not telling the kids [Peloza's students] the
scientific truth about evolution." ... Corbett also told his students
that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper
to present his point of view, Corbett stated, "I will not leave John
Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious
nonsense." ... One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should
not be presenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was
presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the
statement: Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is
"superstitious nonsense." The Court cannot discern a legitimate
secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context.
The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion
in violation of the Establishment Clause.


Selna ended his decision by writing, "The Supreme Court's comments
with regard to governmental promotion of religion apply with equal
force where the government disapproves of religion ... The ruling
today protects Farnan, but also protects teachers like Corbett in
carrying out their teaching duties."

Corbett was evidently describing Peloza's lawsuit against the
Capistrano Unified School District, arguing that the district and its
trustees and employees were violating his constitutional rights by
"pressuring and requiring him to teach evolutionism, a religious
belief system, as a valid scientific theory"; Corbett was among the
named defendants. The lawsuit failed in the United States District
Court, Central District Court of California, and then in the Ninth
Circuit Court of Appeals, which specifically endorsed the district
court's statement, "Since the evolutionist theory is not a religion,
to require an instructor to teach this theory is not a violation of
the Establishment Clause. ... Evolution is a scientific theory based
on the gathering and studying of data, and modification of new data.
It is an established scientific theory which is used as the basis for
many areas of science."

Opinion is predictably divided about the verdict. Douglas Laycock, a
law professor at the University of Michigan, told the Orange County
Register (May 5, 2009), "I'm not sure [Judge Selna] drew the line in
the right place ... The line can be fine sometimes. But here we have a
teacher who wasn't interested in finding the line, and the judge
manages to explain away all but one of the teacher's comments," while
Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine,
said, "What it means is that if you're a teacher, your liability can
turn on a single sentence ... Teachers can avoid this by not talking
about these issues at all, but that has a chilling effect," and John
Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University, said, "School
districts are routinely sued for making one statement that favors a
religion ... The rules apply both ways here."

Corbett himself told the alternative OC Weekly (May 6, 2009), "I
expected to win. I expected the whole case would be thrown out." But,
the newspaper added, "after rereading it and thinking about it, he
says he's come to different conclusions with regard to the judgments
in his favor. 'I think it's a victory for the right of teachers to
provoke students into thinking,' he says." He expressed concern,
however, about the possible chilling effect of the verdict,
commenting, "You'd almost have to survey the class to find out what
their beliefs are so you wouldn't insult anyone." Corbett hopes to
appeal the decision. In the meantime, fees and damages have yet to be
determined; the Orange County Register (May 5, 2009) reported, "Farnan
plans to ask for attorneys' fees, nominal damages and a court
injunction prohibiting Corbett from violating the establishment clause

For the stories in the Orange County Register, visit:

For the story in the OC Weekly, visit:

For court documents from C. F. v. Capistrano, visit:

For court documents from Peloza v. Capistrano, visit:

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- -- where you can always find the latest news on
evolution education and threats to it.

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x310
fax: 510-601-7204

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition!

Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools

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