Math Teacher’s Religious Banners Don’t Add Up, Appeals Court Rules

A public high school math teacher in California does not have the right to display religious banners in his classroom, a federal appeals court has held.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 13 that officials at the Poway Unified School District acted lawfully when they told teacher Bradley Johnson to remove several large banners with religious references.

Johnson asserted that the banners, which were about seven feet wide and two feet tall, were meant to be patriotic in nature. But the court noted that they included the phrases “In God We Trust,” “God Shed His Grace on Thee,” “God Bless America” and “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their CREATOR.” (In this last sign, the word “CREATOR” was twice as large as the other words.)

The court ruled that Johnson had the right to spread his views about religion “on a sidewalk, in a park, at his dinner table, or in countless other locations.” But, the judges added, school officials have the right to tell a teacher “not to use his public position as a pulpit from which to preach his own views on the role of God in our nation’s history to the captive students in his mathematics classroom.”

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Johnson v. Poway Unified School District case, arguing that Johnson’s rights were not violated by the school’s decision.

In its brief, Americans United asserted that Johnson’s “cherry-picked excerpts of religious passages reflect a manifestly religious purpose and have a primarily religious effect.” The brief added, “Indeed, the violation is all the more troubling because Johnson’s students are legally compelled to be present in his classroom.”

The dispute goes back to 2007, when Johnson was told to remove the banners. Johnson did so, but then sued the school, asserting that his free speech rights had been violated. He was backed in court by the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative Catholic group.

A lower court ruled in Johnson’s favor, declaring the banners to be private speech and saying they were permissible because the school allowed teachers to display personal messages on bulletin boards.

In reversing the lower court, the appeals panel rejected that reasoning. The unanimous panel held that the school didn’t violate Johnson’s rights, pointing out that in the classroom, he functions as a district employee, not a private citizen.

The court noted that the Supreme Court and many lower federal courts have ruled that public schools are not permitted to promote religion or compel students to take part in worship. In light of these concerns, said the court, officials at the district were justified in telling Johnson to remove the banners.