Teachers Have No Right To Push Religion In Classroom, AU Tells Court

Public school officials did not violate a California teacher’s rights when they asked him to remove two large religious banners from his classroom, Americans United told a federal appeals court in July.

AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a case centering on the actions of Bradley Johnson, a math teacher at Westview High School in San Diego County. Aided by a Religious Right legal group, Johnson filed a lawsuit against school officials in 2007, claiming his free speech rights were infringed when he was ordered to take down his religious signs. 

A U.S. district court in March ruled in favor of Johnson and ordered school officials to pay nominal damages.

AU says the court failed to apply the law properly.

“The district court got it wrong,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United’s executive director. “A public school teacher has no constitutional right to push personal religious beliefs on students.

“I am confident that the appeals court will reverse this decision,” Lynn continued. “It conflicts with current constitutional law and opens the door for teachers to proselytize students.”

Americans United’s brief, filed with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, supports the Poway Unified School District, arguing that the school was well within its rights to ask Johnson to remove the religious displays.

Numerous federal courts have ruled that public school teachers have no right to engage in religious activity with students or expose them to religious messages. The district court ruling, AU asserts, is out of step with prevailing precedent.

Johnson, who is being represented by the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, displayed two 7-foot by 2-foot banners in his classroom. One contained the phrases “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America” and “God Shed His Grace on Thee” written in red, white and blue stripes. Another banner contained the phrase, “All Men Are Created Equal, They are Endowed By Their Creator.”

Johnson insisted that the messages were mainly patriotic and said other teachers had posters in their rooms containing Tibetan flags, song lyrics and other messages.

School officials countered that they must have the right to control what goes on in the classroom.

“It is not just about these particular banners in this particular room,” Superintendent Bill Chiment said in a press statement. “We are concerned with the lawsuits we will get in the future if the district cannot control what goes up on classroom walls.”

AU’s brief asserts that Johnson’s banners clearly promote religion.

“It’s clear that Johnson had a religious purpose in displaying these passages,” said AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. “There is no academic reason for a math teacher to display religious affirmations in his classroom. It just doesn’t add up.”

Americans United’s brief in Johnson v. Poway Unified School District was drafted by Khan and AU Madison Fellow Michael Blank.