Court Backs District Over Teacher’s ‘God’ Banners

By Mark Walsh — September 14, 2011 2 min read
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A public school teacher has no constitutional right to display banners in his classroom with slogans such as “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God,” a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled unanimously on Tuesday in the case of Bradley R. Johnson, a veteran mathematics teacher in the Poway Unified School District in California.

Johnson, a calculus teacher at Westview High School, was ordered by administrators in 2006 to remove the banners from his classroom. The teacher contended the phrases were simply patriotic sentiments and variations of language found in documents such as the Declaration of Independence. District officials told Johnson that he had to remove the banners because the display of the slogans without context promoted a “Judeo-Christian” viewpoint.

Johnson complied, but he soon sued the district under the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as under the California Constitution. In 2008, a federal district judge ruled for Johnson, saying the school district had created a limited public forum for teachers to express their views and Johnson’s banners “communicate fundamental political messages and celebrate important American shared historical experiences.”

In its Sept. 13 decision in Johnson v. Poway Unified School District, the 9th Circuit court panel said the district court was wrong in failing to analyze Johnson’s banners as speech by a government employee, particularly under the landmark 1968 Supreme Court case of Pickering v. Board of Education of Township School District 205.

“Unlike Pickering, [a teacher] who wrote a letter to his local newspaper as any citizen might, ... Johnson took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him,” said the opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Richard C. Tallman.

The court said nothing in its ruling would prevent Johnson from propounding his own views on the nation’s religious heritage or how God places prominently in our nation’s history.

“He may generally do so on the sidewalks, in the parks, through the chat-rooms, at his dinner table, and in countless other locations,” Judge Tallman said. “He may not do so, however, when he is speaking as the government, unless the government allows him to be its voice.”

“Because the speech at issue owes its existence to Johnson’s position as a teacher, Poway acted well within constitutional limits in ordering Johnson not to speak in a manner it did not desire,” the court said.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.