Blog Post

Judge Rules Against School District’s “One-Sided Censorship” of Religion

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS Staff Journalist

A California Federal District Court ruled that a San Diego School District violated the constitutional rights of a teacher when it ordered him to remove banners from his classroom because they “over-emphasized” God even while allowing banners highlighting Hinduism and Buddhism to remain.

According to a press release from the Thomas More Law Center, Judge Roger T. Benitez ruled on Feb. 26 that the Poway Unified School District in San Diego, CA, violated math teacher Bradley Johnson’s constitutional rights when it ordered him to remove two patriotic aluminium signs from the walls of his classroom. One banner contained famous patriotic phrases such as “In God we Trust” and “One Nation Under God” while the other read “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator.”

“One school official justified the ban by claiming a Muslim student might be offended by the slogans,” said the Law Center, who represented Mr. Johnson. “That school officials banned Johnson’s patriotic displays while permitting other teachers to display personal posters and banners promoting partisan political issues such as gay rights and environmental causes, including global warming, played a crucial role in the Judge’s decision.”

Some of these other displays included a 40 foot string of Tibetan prayer flags containing images of Buddha, a poster featuring Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi’s “7 Social Sins” and a poster of Muslim leader Malcolm X. 

Judge Benitez's ruling was strongly worded and critical of the Poway school districts aversion to mentioning God: “The school district officials apparently fear their students are incapable of dealing with diverse viewpoints that include God’s place in American history and culture. . . .  That God places prominently in our Nation’s history does not create an Establishment Clause violation requiring curettage and disinfectant for Johnson’s public high school classroom walls. It is a matter of historical fact that our institutions and government actors have in past and present times given place to a supreme God.” 

He went on to say that fostering diversity in schools “does not mean bleaching out historical religious expression or mainstream morality.  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.”

In response to the school district’s claim that Johnson’s patriotic banners might make a Muslim student uncomfortable, Judge Benitez stated, “An imaginary Islamic student is not entitled to a heckler’s veto on a teacher’s passive, popular or unpopular expression about God’s place in the history of the United States.”  And the judge flatly rejected the school district’s argument that Tibetan prayer flags were permissible because they were decorative, describing the argument as “a transparent pretext.”

Judge Benitez concluded that Mr. Johnson was entitled to a declaration that the school district violated his individual rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and  . . . ordered the school district to pay nominal damages and Johnson’s attorney’s fees and costs.  And he ordered the school district “to permit Johnson to immediately re-display, in his assigned classroom, the two banners at issue in this case.”  Johnson returned the displays to his classroom that same day.

Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel for the Law Center, commented, “Many school officials exhibit hostility towards our nation’s Christian heritage.  Yet, these same officials see no problem in actively promoting atheism or other religions under the guise of cultural diversity and tolerance.  Hopefully, Judge Benitez’s decision will help put an end to this double standard.  It is the responsibility of our public schools to educate students on the crucial role Christianity played in our Nation’s founding.”

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