For the past twenty-five years, Brad Johnson, a high school math teacher at the Poway Unified School District in San Diego, CA, has been displaying large red, white and blue banners in his classroom that mention God. The banners contain patriotic phrases such as: “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” and “God Bless America.”However, last year school officials ordered the banners removed because they promoted a “Judeo-Christian” viewpoint. The School District allowed classroom displays by other teachers that included posters of Buddhist and Islamic messages and Tibetan prayer flags, among other displays. As a result, the Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, filed a federal lawsuit against the school district on behalf of Johnson.
Last Friday, Federal District Judge Robert T. Benitez ruled that Johnson had a Free Speech right to display the banners. Read the Judge’s ruling here.
Judge Benitez stated, “Whether described as speech from a religious perspective or speech about American history and culture, through display of his classroom banners, Johnson was simply exercising his free speech rights on subjects that were otherwise permitted in the limited public forum created by Defendants and in a manner that did not cause substantial disorder in the classroom. Thus, Johnson has made out a clear claim for relief for an ongoing violation of his First Amendment free speech rights.”
Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel for 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.”
Robert Muise, the Thomas More Law Center lawyer handling the case, added, “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.”
In its lawsuit, the Law Center alleged that the school district’s action amounted to government hostility toward a specific religion and violated Johnson’s Free Speech rights by imposing a viewpoint-based restriction on his speech that was not reasonably related to any legitimate pedagogical concern in violation of the United States and California Constitutions. The school district responded to the lawsuit by filing a motion to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim. Judge Benitez’s ruling rejected the school district’s view of the law and now allows the case to proceed. The lawsuit ultimately seeks to have the speech restriction overturned so that Johnson can continue to display his banners, as he had been for 25 years.