A U.S. District Court in California has ruled that it's unconstitutional for a public school teacher to say that creationism is superstitious nonsense. According to Supreme Court precedent going back to 1984, the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution doesn't mean merely what it says (which is just that the government can't set up a state religion) but extends even to government employees saying something that a reasonable person might take to count as endorsement of a particular perspective endorsing or disapproving religion. Add to that the conviction that creationism is religion, and you get this result. This does seem to me to be a direct application of current Supreme Court precedent and the standard view of creationism as religion (which the Supreme Court has endorsed, at least in one instance of the use of the term and a U.S. appeals court has declared to be applicable to intelligent design as well, although that judgment is only legally binding in one of the three federal court districts of Pennsylvania, just as this current decision is only legally binding on one of four federal court districts in California). [For the record, my detailed evaluation of the last case is here.]
Now I don't happen to think this is the right result, for several reasons. For one, the term 'creationism' can mean a lot of different things. It could mean the view that the the Earth is 6,000 years old, more precisely known as young-earth creationism. Some hold this view because they believe scripture teaches it, in which case it counts as a religious belief. Others claim to find it taught by science, in which case their support for it is of the kind that should count as science, even if it's bad science. The Supreme Court has declared that since it is taught in scripture, and science the scientific reasoning being presented is not good science, it can't be of the kind that should count as science. That claim has always seemed wrong to me, and I think this result is exactly what follows when you take such a view. If it's not of a scientific kind, then deriding it as bad science is also not of a scientific nature but of a religious nature (even if it's against a religious view).
But the term 'creationism' can also mean simply that there's a divine being who created. That's often a religious belief. It can also be a philosophical conclusion of arguments that have been present throughout the entire history of Western philosophy and have been held alongside religious beliefs by some but independently of religious beliefs by others. Thomas Aquinas, for example, presented arguments for God's existence that did not rely one bit on any religious beliefs. Lots of thinkers have believed in a creator without thinking they have any religious obligations to that creator. So even that kind of creationism isn't clearly religious, although it often is. Intelligent design arguments fall into this category if they conclude with the belief in a divine creator (rather than a more open conclusion, e.g. merely that there is some designer, which could be aliens if we're talking about biological ID arguments rather than cosmological fine-tuning ID arguments).
When a teacher says that creationism is superstitious nonsense, absent a context, it's not clear what that teacher means. It's certainly not obvious to me that it's a derision of particularly religious elements in any particular one of these things creationism can mean. But I do suspect that most people saying something like this aren't going to be sensitive to any of the distinctions I've just outlined, and they probably do intend to think of creationism as a religious teaching. Given some of the other statements this particular teacher made, I think this is especially likely in this case.
But is deriding religion a violation of the Establishment Clause? It certainly is, according to the current court precedents. Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly presented the endorsement test, which prohibits government employees when speaking in official capacity from saying anything that either endorses or disapproves of religion, and later decisions have made use of this principle.
According to what's commonly called the Lemon test (from Chief Justice Burger's 1971 opinion in Lemon v. Kurtzman), which Justice O'Connor meant to be clarifying with her endorsement test, a statement regarding religion can be unconstitutional in any of three ways. If it has no legitimate secular purpose, if its primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion, or if results in excessive entanglement of government or religion then it violates the Establishment Clause, according to that decision, which has been maintained in a number of subsequent decisions. It's hard to see this teacher's comment as having no secular purpose, if what he wants is just to promote science, but it doesn't seem easy to me to get out of the charge of inhibiting religion. It doesn't inhibit religion per se, but it does inhibit a particular religious expression, even in the most restricted sense of creationism as young-earth creationism. If it was about a much broader conception, then it seems to seek to inhibit a broader category of religious expression.
I think the fundamental problem with Supreme Court doctrine on this sort of issue is that none of this has much to do with what the Constitution actually says. The First Amendment's Establishment Clause reads, ""Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". Together with the misnamed Free-Exercise Clause (which is a phrase, not a clause, which adds "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" we have the entirety of the Constitution's pronouncements on religion. The founders were preventing the establishment of a church state, such as Great Britain's Church of England. Congress is prevented from making a law respecting the establishment of religion.
The term 'respecting' could mean either "with respect to" or "giving respect to". I tend to think it means the former, which is a broader prohibition. Congress can't make any laws about the setting up of religions. Religions are free to do as they choose in setting themselves up, without laws prohibiting their free expression. But even in the more restricted second reading, Congress is only preventing from making laws that show respect for a religion. In that case, it still doesn't mean that government employees can't show respect for a religion (never mind show disrespect). This is about laws prohibiting certain religious conduct or establishing a state religion. The Free Exercise Clause itself should show us that, since prohibiting religious speech by an individual is thus prohibiting fee exercise. I'm not sure how that should be any different for a high school history teacher than it is for President Obama's frequent invocation of God. Some say it restricts both, of course, but I don't see how it restricts either. There's perhaps something immoral about deriding religion in the classroom, but I don't see how it's unconstitutional.
But if I'm right, it also means that there's nothing unconstitutional with endorsing or at least showing great respect and favoritism to particular religious beliefs in the classroom. You don't even have to go as far as I do with the Establishment Clause to allow the teaching of creationism or intelligent design arguments as constitutional, since those aren't in every context really religion. That's not to say that the young-earth creation science view should be taught as good science, which is another matter entirely. It's also not to say that intelligent design arguments based on scientific premises are good philosophical reasoning, which is also a separate question. It just strikes me as historically ignorant and conceptually confused to think that these things are unconstitutional. If it takes a ruling like this to show the anti-religion crowd the absurdity of current judicial precedent, then I welcome such a ruling. Since lower courts are bound by the Supreme Court, I do think this case was rightly decided given the role of this judge. Nevertheless, it's the wrong result, and that should be a wake-up call to those whose current views on creationism and intelligent design have led to this.