FAITH UNDER FIRE
Supremes asked to affirm Constitution's 1st Amendment
By Michael Carl
For 25 years, math teacher Bradley Johnson at Poway High School near San Diego took advantage of a 30-year school policy and hung patriotic posters with sayings such as “God bless America” in his classroom.
But then school officials ordered Johnson to take down the banners, even though other teachers were allowed to keep anti-religious slogans such as John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Buddhist prayer flags and images of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X.
So he went to court, and now the case is on its way to the highest court in the land.
The legal ordeal started in 2007 when school officials are alleged to have suddenly reversed the policy that allowed teachers to display banners, posters and signs that reflected their personal beliefs.
Poway officials told Johnson that his banners violated the establishment clause of the Constitution because they advocated a “Judeo-Christian worldview.”
Johnson pointed to what other teachers displayed, but the district dismissed his concerns.
Thomas More Law Center represented Johnson, and he won the first round in California federal district court, where Judge Robert Benitez said the teacher was within his First Amendment rights.
Benitez extolled the virtues of education while concluding Johnson doesn’t lose his liberties after walking through the school house doors.
“May a school district censor a high school teacher’s expression because it refers to Judeo-Christian views while allowing other teachers to express views on a number of controversial subjects, including religion and anti-religion? On undisputed evidence, this Court holds that it may not,” Benitez wrote.
Benitez also says that the federal courts should use restraint in dealing with local schools.
“Courts should not quickly intervene in the daily operation of schools and school systems, for that task is committed primarily to local school boards,” Benitez wrote.
But he said when a constitutional question is at the heart of the dispute, the courts have a valid role to play in the matter.
“The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools,” Benitez wrote.
The school took the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the most overturned appellate court in the nation, and Benitez’s ruling was reversed. That means Johnson has nowhere left to go but to the Supreme Court.
The Thomas More Law Center said the issue arose because of criticism from one of Johnson’s colleagues.
“The banners became a problem as a result of a complaint by one of Johnson’s fellow teachers,” the organization’s report said.
Johnson defended his banners because he says other teachers were apparently free to display religious signs. Thomas More said the school ordered Johnson to remove his banners because they believe they can.
“Basically, the school said, ‘we can tell teachers what to do.’ And school officials claim the use of the phrase ‘God’ in each of those phrases violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution,” a Thomas More spokesman said.
Buddha, on the other hand, is scientific, according to the district, the spokesman said.
“Additionally, they consider the image of Buddha to be more of a scientific interest than a religious symbol.”
The Poway district issued a statement saying school officials believe they were within their rights asking Johnson to remove the banner.
“The Poway Unified School District has believed from the beginning of this case that the removal of a teacher’s banners was consistent with the requirements of the United States Constitution,” the statement said.
“On September 13, 2011, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that the district acted correctly, holding that public-school teachers do not have a First Amendment right to say anything they want when teaching to a captive student audience. A month later, the entire 9th Circuit denied the teacher’s request to rehear the appeal,” the statement said.
School system attorney Jack Sleeth Jr. said in the statement that he believes the 9th Circuit acted appropriately.
“We believe that the 9th Circuit properly followed the Constitution and Supreme Court case law in ensuring that all students have a proper environment for learning. The 9th Circuit correctly found that teachers have no First Amendment right to espouse their personal religious beliefs in the classroom,” Sleeth said in the statement.
Civil rights attorney and legal writer Rees Lloyd disagrees with both the school and the 9th Circuit opinion.
“This 9th Circuit decision represents a dangerous, discriminatory, secular-cleansing, anti-Christian precedent, as well as a travesty of justice,” Lloyd said.
“The decision is sure to be perceived for what it is – another monument to arrogant judicial tyranny, transforming the nation beyond all recognition from its founding,” Lloyd said.
“The 9th Circuit, the most liberal and most reversed circuit in the United States, has now held that government school bureaucrats may establish policies creating a right of teachers to express their personal points of view in the classroom,” Lloyd said.
“That includes political, atheist, agnostic, irreligious, non-religious, and religious points of view, except the expression of words and symbols associated with the Judeo-Christian values upon which the American nation was founded, which those school bureaucrats can censure and ban because they find that point of view unacceptable,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd added that the 9th Circuit’s opinion fails to address the issue of whether Buddhist displays may offend Christians.
“Nowhere in the 9th Circuit opinion is there any discussion of whether those displays (the Dalai Lama, etc.) might be offensive to Christians or Jewish students. It is only the American flag, and words associated with Judeo-Christian points of view, upon which the nation was founded, that the school bureaucrats, and the 9th Circuit judges find might give offense,” Lloyd said.