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Federal judge rules teacher can display patriotic banners mentioning 'God'

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California Federal District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez ruled late Friday 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 in January of 2007, because they “overemphasized” God. According to the Thomas More Law Center Judge Benitez concluded the following:

 “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 Article I, §§ 2 and 4 of 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.”

Mr. Johnson was represented by the Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The group filed the federal lawsuit on the teacher’s behalf when the school district ordered Mr. Johnson to remove the banners.

According to Mr. Johnson’s attorneys, “the two banners are seven feet wide and two feet tall and contain phrases that highlight our Nation’s history and religious heritage.” Thomas More Law Center explains in a release that while the district tried to remove Mr. Johnson’s  banners, it allowed 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.

Robert Muise, an attorney at Thomas More who took on Mr. Johnson’s case, told The Washington Times, “One of the main things that was exceedingly important to us was that we had a court order to go into the high school and photograph all the various non-curriculum items the teachers were allowed to put up. It was to show they [the school district] had this policy of allowing it, and they were just being discriminatory against Mr. Johnson’s banners.”

Below are the banners the school district tried to remove. The Thomas More Center further explains the images the school district found offensive:

“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.”

Religious - In God We Trust #1Religious - Endowed by their Creator #1

“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.”

“Mr. Johnson doesn’t proselytize to his students. These banners are patriotic expressions. None of them are from any religious text. None of them are from the Bible or the Koran. They’re right out of historic significance. That’s the reason why he put them up,” said Mr. Muise.

Judge Benitez’s 32-page opinion is critical of the Poway school district’s censoring of the mentioning of God. Here are some excerpts he wrote from his opinion. He addresses the diversity argument and the Establishment clause. Later he goes into the “imaginary Islamic” student scenario who may feel “uncomfortable” about the banners:

“[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.”  

“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.”
Judge Benitez responded to the allegation that the banners could make an Islamic student feel uncomfortable:
“[A]n 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,” said Mr. Muise.

While this is a victory for now, Mr. Muise cautions that the school district is likely to appeal its case to the Ninth Circuit, which is known for having its usual liberal rulings reversed often by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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About the Author
Kerry Picket

Kerry Picket

Kerry Picket, a former Opinion Blogger/Editor of The Watercooler, was associate producer for the Media Research Center, a content producer for Robin Quivers of "The Howard Stern Show" on Sirius satellite radio and a production assistant and copy writer at MTV.

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