Ninth Circuit Rules - Student v. Teacher

On August 19, 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the case of Farnan v. Capistrano Unified School District.

Please read this important update as we make preparations to take this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2007, Chad Farnan, then a student at Capistrano High School in Orange County, CA, brought a case against his Advanced Placement European History teacher. Farnan had tape recorded numerous lectures for study purposes, but in the meantime, caught his teacher making numerous comments that we believe were an unconstitutional attack on Christianity and religion. In one instance, his teacher stated, “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”

We filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the public school teacher was creating an environment of religious hostility, thereby violating the federal Establishment Clause.  We believe that a child should be able to go to school without being bullied by his own public school teacher.

In May 2009, a federal District Court judge issued a ruling in Farnan’s favor. The judge held that the teacher violated the Establishment Clause in one instance where he expressed “an unequivocal belief that creationism is 'superstitious nonsense.'” This was a great victory in the furtherance of religious liberty.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed with us that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment requires that government officials must maintain neutrality toward “religion and nonreligion.” The court even said that “[a]t some point a teacher’s comments on religion might cross the line and rise to the level of unconstitutional hostility.”

Despite these statements, the Ninth Circuit chose not to give a ruling on the main constitutional question presented on appeal. Instead, the Ninth Circuit chose to simply say that the court could “not conclude that a reasonable teacher standing in [the teacher’s] shoes would have been on notice that his actions might be unconstitutional.” Therefore, the Court granted immunity to the school teacher.

This begs the question: Why didn’t the Ninth Circuit rule on the constitutional question and provide guidance to the millions of school children and tens of thousands of school teachers? This case could have been used to place boundaries on teachers who feel free to improperly express hostility toward religion in public schools.

We believe that the Ninth Circuit had the responsibility to issue a ruling that clarified the law by declaring that the teacher’s conduct was unconstitutional. Instead, the Court intentionally avoided making any determination on the substantive legal issue and simple granted immunity.

Just as public school teachers are not allowed to promote one religion in the classroom, they should not be able to use their classrooms as a platform to attack religion because the pendulum swings both ways.

It is our goal to have the Ninth Circuit, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court, issue a precedent setting ruling on this important legal issue, regardless of whether the teacher is granted immunity from monetary damages.

The teacher may have won a mid-level procedural victory - being granted immunity, but he certainly has not won the moral victory.  So far, the only court to address the constitutionality of the teacher’s conduct is the District Court and that court determined that the teacher’s conduct was unconstitutional.

A teacher who spews hostility toward Christianity or other faiths is no more acceptable than the bully on the playground that is verbally hostile toward other students. This case is not about immunity for the teacher or money for our clients, it’s about protecting our kids from a hostile environment in the classroom.

This case, however, is far from over. We plan to file a petition for rehearing and for en banc review before the Ninth Circuit within the next week or so. If the petition is not successful, we will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

Please stand in prayer with our legal team and Chad Farnan.  We greatly appreciate your prayers and would appreciate your immediate financial support as we prepare our legal briefs over the next two weeks.