From the Thomas More Law Center;
Roger T. Benitez, a Federal District Court Judge in California ruled recently that the Poway Unified School District in San Diego, violated math teacher Bradley Johnson’s constitutional rights when it ordered him to remove two patriotic banners from the walls of his classroom because they “over-emphasized” God. [Decision attached]
The Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, filed a federal lawsuit on Johnson’s behalf, after the school district ordered him to take down his banners in January 2007.
The two banners are approximately seven feet wide and two feet tall and contain phrases that highlight our Nation’s history and religious heritage. One banner with red, white, and blue stripes hung on the wall for twenty-five years and displayed the famous patriotic phrases: “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America,” and “God Shed His Grace on Thee.”
The second banner, which had been displayed for seventeen years, contained an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence: “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator.”
One school official justified the ban by claiming a Muslim student might be offended by the slogans.
That school officials banned Johnson’s patriotic displays while permitting other teachers to display personal posters and banners promoting partisan political issues such as gay rights and environmental causes, including global warming, played a crucial role in the Judge’s decision.
These displays included: a 35 to 40 foot string of Tibetan prayer flags with images of Buddha; a poster with the lyrics from John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” which starts off, Imagine there’s no Heaven; a poster with Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi’s “7 Social Sins;” a poster of Muslim leader Malcolm X, and a poster of Buddhist leader Dali Lama.
Judge Benitez’s 32-page opinion was strongly worded and critical of the Poway school districts aversion to mentioning God: “[The school district officials] apparently fear their students are incapable of dealing with diverse viewpoints that include God’s place in American history and culture. . . . 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. It is a matter of historical fact that our institutions and government actors have in past and present times given place to a supreme God.”
Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel for the Law Center, commented, “Many school officials exhibit hostility towards our nation’s Christian heritage. Yet, these same officials see no problem in actively promoting atheism or other religions under the guise of cultural diversity and tolerance. Hopefully, Judge Benitez’s decision will help put an end to this double standard.
It is the responsibility of our public schools to educate students on the crucial role Christianity played in our Nation’s founding.”
In his ruling, Judge Benitez acknowledged that public schools provide students with a healthy exposure to diverse ideas and opinions. He then went on to rule, “Fostering diversity, however, does not mean bleaching out historical religious expression or mainstream morality. By squelching only Johnson’s patriotic and religious classroom banners, while permitting other diverse religious and anti-religious classroom displays, the school district does a disservice to the students of Westview High School and the federal and state constitutions do not permit this one-sided censorship.”
In response to the school district’s claim that Johnson’s patriotic banners might make a Muslim student uncomfortable, Judge Benitez stated, “An imaginary Islamic student is not entitled to a heckler’s veto on a teacher’s passive, popular or unpopular expression about God’s place in the history of the United States.” And the judge flatly rejected the school district’s argument that Tibetan prayer flags were permissible because they were decorative, describing the argument as “a transparent pretext.”Judge Benitez concluded that Johnson was entitled to a declaration that the school district violated his individual rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and the California Constitution. He ordered the school district to pay nominal damages and Johnson’s attorney’s fees and costs. And he ordered the school district “to permit Johnson to immediately re-display, in his assigned classroom, the two banners at issue in this case.” Johnson returned the displays to his classroom that same day.
Robert Muise, the Thomas More Law Center Senior Trial Counsel handling the case, commented, “Judge Benitez’s strong opinion sends a clear message to school districts across the country that hostility toward our Nation’s religious heritage is contrary to our constitution. Indeed, it was refreshing to read an opinion that does justice to our Nation’s history, rather than rewrite it.”