by Peter Grady –
In a blatant admission that the “establishment clause” only applies to Christian beliefs, a California court has ruled that a school district was within its rights to order classroom banners proclaiming God in quotes by American’s founding documents, while allowing references to Eastern religions to remain in other classrooms.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stated in its ruling that the Poway Unified School District was fully within its rights by allowing other religious displays while denying the Christian one.
In the decision, Judge Richard Tallman wrote, “All of the speech of which Johnson complains belongs to the government and the government has the right to ‘speak for itself.’ When it does, ‘it is entitled to say what it wishes.’”
For over 25 years, Bradley Johnson, who taught high school math at the district had displayed patriotic banners containing phrases such as “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” and “God Bless America.”
The district had a 30-year old policy allowing teachers to display non-curricular messages that reflected their personal opinions and values. There were other classrooms that had displays with religious themes as well.
Other classroom displays included a 40-foot string of Tibetan prayer flags with images of Buddha throughout the classroom, a poster with Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi’s “7 Social Sins;” a poster of the Dali Lama and Muslim leader Malcolm X.
In 2007 school officials told Johnson he would need to remove his banners because it promoted a “Judeo-Christian” viewpoint, but the other religious displays would be allowed to remain in classrooms.
Because of the obvious double standard, the Thomas More Law Center filed suit on behalf of Johnson. The initial ruling by Judge Robert Benitez sided with Johnson saying he “was simply exercising his free speech rights on subjects that were otherwise permitted in the limited public forum created by Defendants,” and that there was an “ongoing violation of First Amendment free speech rights.”
Benitez said 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.”
Rather than acknowledge the double standard, the district appealed the case and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Benitez saying that, because Johnson’s banners and posters lifted the phrases out of context a non-Christian student could feel he was not welcome in the classroom.
However, the court also ruled that the district was acting within the scope of its authority to allow the displays promoting other religions.
Regarding the Tibetan flags and quotes by Gandhi, Tallman said, “Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the establishment clause.”
The court acknowledged that the flags may very well represent the Buddhist faith but their use was acceptable because their use “have nothing to do with their religious connotation.”
Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Law Center, commenting on the Ninth Circuit ruling said, “This case is a prime example of how public schools across our nation are cleansing our classrooms of our Christian heritage while promoting atheism and other non-Christian religions under the guise of cultural diversity.”
He continued, “The Ninth Circuit Court’s rationale in allowing the Tibetan Prayer Flags and references to other religions while outlawing America’s patriotic slogans that mention God is unconvincing. Brad Johnson was simply exercising his free speech rights in a forum created by the school district to inform students of the religious foundations of our nation.”
The TMLC filed an appeal asking the Supreme Court to hear the case noting that based on the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, “the School District possesses the plenary authority to make viewpoint-based restrictions on the personal, non-curricular speech of its teachers.”
They noted that under the ruling school officials are now permitted to permit teachers to display campaigning posters of a Democrat running for office, yet refuse teachers a similar right for Republican candidates.
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