All high school math teacher Bradley Johnson wanted to do was honor our nation’s history and religious heritage the same way he always had. For twenty five years, a red, white and blue-striped banner adorned his classroom walls with national maxims such as “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God, “ “God Bless America,” and “God Shed his Grace On Thee.” A second banner accompanied it, containing an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, “All Men are Created Equal and They Are Endowed by Their Creator.”
But displaying a portion of the Declaration of Independence and other national mottos was just too offensive to the Poway Unified School District in San Diego. It ordered Johnson to remove the banners from his classroom because they “over-emphasized” God – one school official said it might “offend” Muslim students. Fortunately, Johnson went to federal court to fight this absurd order (represented by the Thomas More Law Center), and even more fortunately, given that California is in the 9th Circuit, the most liberal appeals circuit in the nation, a federal judge found on February 26 that the school board’s actions violated Mr. Johnson’s constitutional rights.
Judge Roger T. Benitez did not allow the censorship because “it has been clear for over 90 years that teachers do not lose their constitutional rights inside the schoolhouse gate, and that government may not squelch one viewpoint while favoring another.”
It turned out that the school district allowed teachers to display other posters promoting controversial political issues such as gay rights and global warming, and banners showing other religious preferences such as Tibetan prayer flags, Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi’s “Seven Social Sins,” and John Lennon and the lyrics of his song “Imagine,” which opens with lyrics about no heaven, no hell, and no religion. The school district just seemed to have a problem with Christian religious and American patriotic sentiments.
No student, parent or school administrator had ever objected to Johnson’s banners – until January 23, 2007, when the entire school board ordered Johnson to remove the posters which “conveyed a Judeo-Christian viewpoint.”
Judge Benitez was scathing in his denunciation of the school board, which apparently feared that “students are incapable of dealing with diverse viewpoints that include God’s place in American history and culture.” The fact that “God places prominently in our Nation’s history does not create an Establishment Clause violation requiring curettage and disinfectant for Johnson’s public high school classroom walls.” The board not only failed to comply with the long-standing policy that “a teacher’s classroom walls serve as a limited public forum for a teacher to convey non-curriculum messages,” but also went so far as to silence Johnson’s speech.
Judge Benitez cracked down on the board’s bias, concluding that “by squelching Johnson’s patriotic and religious viewpoint, while permitting speech promoting Buddhist, Hindu, and anti-religious viewpoints, Defendants clearly abridged Johnson’s constitutional free speech rights.” An “imaginary” Islamic student was “not entitled to a heckler’s veto on a teacher’s passive, popular or unpopular, expression.”
This is a common-sense decision that hostility towards our nation’s history, its religious heritage, and expressions of patriotism will not be tolerated in our public school classrooms. Hopefully, other school boards around the country will take notice.
Collen Kaveney currently is a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation, and she contributes posts to The Foundry.
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