Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Bradley Johnson and one of the two banners he was ordered to take down
A math teacher sued his school district after the principal told him the words “In God We Trust” and “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator” must be removed from his homeroom wall because they convey a Judeo-Christian viewpoint.
In January, Principal Dawn Kastner told Westview High School math teacher Bradley Johnson that a banner he had posted in his classroom for 25 years, and another that was posted for 17 years, needed to come down.
The older banner, measuring 7 feet by 2 feet, contained the words “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless Ameirica” and “God Shed His Grace On Thee.” The second banner quoted the Declaration of Independence by including the phrase, “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator.”
Even though 4,000 students have passed through Johnson’s classroom without a single complaint in 25 years, the principal told Johnson the banners were now impermissible because of their religious content.
The Thomas More Law Center, a not-for-profit law firm dedicated to the defense of religious freedoms, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Johnson against the Poway Unified School District of San Diego, Calif., which includes Westview High School, claiming the order to remove the banners violated Johnson’s First Amendment freedom of speech, particularly since the district permits other teachers to hang Buddhist, Islamic, and Tibetan prayer messages on their classroom walls.
Richard Thompson, president of the Law Center, commented, “Many public schools exhibit a knee-jerk hostility towards Christianity and seek to cleanse our nation’s classrooms of our religious heritage while promoting atheism or other religions under the guise of cultural diversity.”
The school district, in turn, filed to have the lawsuit dismissed. But last week, Federal District Judge Robert T. Benitez denied the request, stating, “Johnson has made out a clear claim for relief for an ongoing violation of his First Amendment free speech rights,” and calling the principal’s order “an unequivocal case of government hostility” toward the Judeo-Christian viewpoint.
“Judge Benitez’s strongly worded opinion sends a clear message to school districts across the country that hostility toward our Nation’s religious heritage is contrary to our Constitution,” said Rober Muise, the Thomas More Law Center lawyer handling the case.
According to court documents, the school district argued for dismissal, saying that Johnson’s banners do not enjoy First Amendment protections “because Johnson is speaking as an educator, not a citizen” and “because Johnson was a teacher, he had no First Amendment protections in his classroom.”
Judge Benitez sharply disagreed, claiming the district’s argument amounted to saying that Johnson has no free speech rights at all because he is a government employee.
Benitez quoted the 1969 Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which stated, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. This has been the unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years.”
The judge then added, “In the 40 years since, the Supreme Court has neither diminished the force of Tinker for teachers nor in any other way cabined the First Amendment speech of public school teachers.”
Benitez then presented a strong rebuttal to the charge that the Declaration of Independence and phrases like “In God We Trust” represent unconstitutional religious establishment.
“The Court does not understand Johnson’s banners as communicating a religious Judeo-Christian viewpoint,” Benitez wrote in his decision. “Rather, the banners communicated fundamental political messages and celebrate important American shared historical experiences.”
Benitez further wrote, “That God places prominently in our nation’s history does not create an Establishment Clause problem requiring curettage and disinfectant of Johnson’s 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.”
Benitez then quoted a 1952 Supreme Court ruling, Zorach v. Clauson: “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
The judge concluded his decision with the remarks, “By squelching only Johnson’s patriotic expression, the school district does a disservice to the students of Westview High School, and the federal and state constitutions do not permit such one-sided censorship.”