A federal judge ruled on Friday that a San Diego high school teacher has a free speech right to display patriotic banners in his classroom with messages such as “God Bless America,” “In God We Trust,” and “One Nation Under God.” School officials had ordered the banners removed on the grounds they promoted a “Judeo-Christian” viewpoint.
Brad Johnson, a high school math teacher, had displayed such red, white and blue banners in his Poway Unified School District high school for twenty-five years before they were ordered removed. The school district allowed classroom displays by other teachers that included posters of Buddhist and Islamic messages, Tibetan prayer flags, and other displays.
The Ann Arbor-based Thomas More Law Center filed a federal lawsuit against the school district on Johnson’s behalf, arguing that the school district’s actions amounted to government hostility toward a specific religion. The lawsuit also alleged that the school district violated Johnson’s free speech rights by imposing a viewpoint-based restriction upon him, according to a Tuesday press release from the Thomas More Law Center.
The Poway Unified School District responded to the lawsuit with a motion seeking to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim.
Federal District Judge Robert T. Benitez ruled that the lawsuit may proceed, stating in his decision:
“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.”
Robert Muise, the Thomas More Law Center lawyer handling the case, praised the decision by saying the judge’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.”
Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel for the Law Center, added his own comments, saying “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.”
If the lawsuit is successful, the speech restriction will be overturned and Johnson will be allowed to display his banners.