Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Religious Banners Come Down

In September, U.S. Ninth Circuit Appeals Court Judge Richard Tallman wrote for a unanimous panel,
“We consider whether a public school district infringes the First Amendment liberties of one of its teachers when it orders him not to use his public position as a pulpit from which to preach his own views on the role of God in our nation’s history to the captive students in his mathematics classroom.
“The answer is clear: it does not.”
For seventeen years, math teacher Bradley Johnson displayed two 7-foot by 2-foot banners in his Poway, California classroom.
One banner said, “In God We Trust”,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America,” and “God Shed His Grace on Thee.” The other banner said, “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed by Their CREATOR.”
A new principal saw the banners and asked Johnson to remove them or put the phrases in context. The school offered him a large poster of a quarter that displayed “In God We Trust” in context. Johnson refused.
The principal took the matter up the chain of command, and the school board ordered Johnson to remove the banners. He did so and then sued the Poway school district in federal court.
Johnson won. U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez said the banners were historic and patriotic rather than religious.
He said the district let other teachers decorate their rooms as they liked. Some displays included religious opinions, and one room had a big set of Tibetan prayer flags.
Because the District allowed those items, it must allow Johnson’s banners.
The Ninth Circuit Appeals panel overturned Benitez’ ruling.
Judge Tallman noted that Johnson himself acknowledged the banners’ religious message.
Johnson had testified, “My purpose was to celebrate our national heritage of—and the national motto saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I know that there’s—you know, is it God or is it —or is there no God. If that’s the choice, then this is espousing God as opposed to no God.”
Judge Tallman wrote, “If Johnson’s speech ‘owes its existence’ to his position as a teacher, then Johnson spoke as a public employee.… ‘The Constitution does not entitle teachers to present personal views to captive audiences against the instructions of elected officials.’”
In context, none of the other displays cited by Johnson promoted religion. Lori Brinkley, the science teacher who hung the Tibetan flags, brought them back as souvenirs from Nepal, where mountain climbers planted them at summits.
She hadn’t perceived the flags as religious, and neither had her students. Brinkley used the flags when she discussed core samples and fossils found on and near Mount Everest.
Judge Tallman found her use of the flags curriculum-related and not religious. The case is Poway v. Johnson.

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