Supreme Court avoids talking about God in school

Published: Friday, Feb. 24 2012 7:04 a.m. MST

The pledge of allegiance isn't the only place where the presence of God is debated in schools.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of a former high school student who sued his history teacher for allegedly making anti-Christian comments, according to the Orange County Register. Chad Farnan said his Capistrano Valley High School teacher, James Corbett, violated his First Amendment rights when he called creationism "religious, superstitious nonsense" in a 2007 lecture.

U.S. District Court Judge James Selna agreed with Farnan, yet granted Corbett immunity­ — a federal protection that shields government workers from financial liability if they've violated someone's constitutional rights. Although he won, Farnan appealed to a three-judge 9th Circuit panel in Pasadena who reversed the lower court's decision altogether in August 2011, ruling that Corbett could not have known he might be breaking the law.

The Supreme Court's decision not to hear the appeal means the 9th Circuit's ruling will stand.

University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock told the Register the appellate court side-stepped the core issue of whether or not Corbett violated Farnan's First Amendment rights by choosing to focus on the immunity.

"This is an example of a systemic problem in constitutional litigation," the article quoted Laycock as saying. "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."

Despite the confusion in California, things are pretty clear concerning a prayer banner in Rhode Island. A judge ruled last week that a school banner that appeared to contain a prayer could not be displayed in a Cranston, R.I., high school. Jessica Ahlqusit, a 16-year-old atheist, sued the school for displaying the banner prominently.

The banner had hung at the school since 1963, when the first graduating class donated it to the school.

"It's something I feel strongly about," Ahlquist told Public Radio International. "I'm very passionate about my country and the Constitution, and as an atheist I like to think I have just as much a right to go to that school and feel included and a piece of that school as any other student who may believe in God."

Because the banner started out with the phrase "Our Heavenly Father," Ahlquist said it implies the school prays and believes in God.

"As someone who doesn't, I don't really feel like I'm a part of my school," Ahlquist said.

The school board declined to appeal the decision, after receiving legal advice that an appeal could lead to the Supreme Court and $500,000 in legal fees. Members of the Cranston community have criticized Ahlquist for her stance, including state Rep. Peter G. Palumbo (D-Cranston), who called Ahlquist an "evil little thing" on a local talk radio show.

ABC News reports Ahlquist has received a $40,000-plus scholarship from prominent atheists around the country. Hemant Mehta, a blogger at the Friendly Atheist, launched the scholarship fund.

"Freedom from Religion (an atheist group) wanted to send flowers to her, and none of the florists in Rhode Island would even deliver flowers to her," Mehta told ABC News. "A state representative called her evil in an interview. Every time stories come up about how people are treating this 16-year-old girl, my heart just goes out to her and I want to help her in some way."

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