District Court Dismisses Claim of Teaching Course from a “Christian Worldview”

The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona has dismissed a claim by a woman who enrolled in a course called, “Introduction to Ethics” at a public community college, and who alleged that the teacher of the course “failed to teach the course according to the course description and instead taught her own Christian worldview,” in violation of the Establishment Clause.  The class, the plaintiff claimed, consisted of “indoctrination” rather than of instruction in various philosophical texts as set out in the course description.

After dismissing the claims for injunctive relief on grounds of mootness (the plaintiff had already completed the course and would not repeat it) the court also held that the plaintiff was not entitled to damages because of the doctrine of qualified immunity.  A little background: qualified immunity protects government officials from suit unless the particular right claimed to be violated  was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the challenged conduct.  The existence of the right needs to be “beyond debate.”

The court agreed with the defendants that although certain religious practices are clearly barred in the classroom (e.g., Bible reading, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, posting of the Ten Commandments in every classroom, and several others), “the exact contours of what is allowed when using religious materials in a classroom and teaching from a religious perspective are not entirely clear.”  More from the court: “[J]ust becase a book, or chapters within a book, that are used in a classroom are theological in nature, the use of the book in a classroom does not automatically result in a violation of the Establishment Clause.”  And the fact that religion was discussed by the teacher was likewise not enough to make out an Establishment Clause violation.

The case is Smith v. Arizona, 2012 WL 3108818 (D. Ariz. July 31, 2012).