Fear not…for He will never leave or forsake us. There are more with us than against us.
A federal judge has ruled that the constitutional rights of a Westview High School math teacher were violated by Poway school district officials who ordered him to remove classroom banners containing patriotic messages that referred to God.
The judge’s decision calls for a declaration that teacher Bradley Johnson’s First Amendment rights were violated, and orders nominal damages of $10 from each of the nine Poway Unified School District officials named in the suit.
“I’m very pleased with the decision and I feel vindicated,” Johnson said Tuesday.
Attorney Robert Muise of the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm that filed the suit on Johnson’s behalf in 2007, said he will file a motion asking the district to pay about $250,000 in attorneys fees.
District attorney Jack Sleeth said the district will probably appeal the decision.
Muise said Johnson has worked for the district 30 years and had never heard a complaint about the banners before he was told to remove them by Principal Dawn Kastner.
Johnson said he created the two 7-foot-wide, 2-foot-tall banners “to celebrate the heritage of our country, that has God in our heritage, and as an acknowledgement of a supreme being.”
Johnson said he took them down in 2007 but returned them to his classroom after school Friday following a call from Muise. He said administrators have not said anything to him about the court decision.
One banner, originally hung in Johnson’s classroom in 1982 when he taught at Mt. Carmel High, contains the phrases “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America” and “God Shed His Grace on Thee” written in red, white and blue stripes.
Another banner, originally hung in his Rancho Bernardo classroom in 1990, contains a phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator.”
“There’s a sort of knee-jerk reaction to anything that has religious connotations, and specifically Christian religious connotations,” Muise said by phone Tuesday about the district’s action. “They had no problem with a 40-foot string of Tibetan prayer flags in another classroom or a poster of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine,’ which has anti-religious lyrics.”
Sleeth issued a statement Monday saying the Tibetan flags, Lennon lyrics and other displays in classrooms were with some context and did not promote any one religion. In comparison, he said, Johnson’s banners were prominent and were considered a violation of the separation of church and state.
In the same press release, PUSD Associate Superintendent Bill Chiment said school administrators need to have clarity and guidance from the Federal Court of Appeals about how much control they have over what teachers display in classrooms.
“It is not just about these particular banners in this particular room,” Chiment said in the statement. “We are concerned with the lawsuits we will get in the future if the district cannot control what goes up on classroom walls.”
In a decision filed Feb. 25, Judge Roger Benitez wrote that the school district may not censor one teacher’s expression that refers to Judeo-Christian views while allowing other teachers to express views on a number of controversial subjects, including religious and anti-religious.
“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,” the judge wrote.
Benitez also wrote that Johnson hung the banners not as a class lesson but for self-expression, which is allowed in the district for other teachers.
“Johnson hung his banners pursuant to a long-standing Poway Unified School District policy, practice, and custom of permitting teachers to display personal messages on their classroom walls,” the judge wrote.