(CN) – A math teacher at a San Diego public high school does not have a constitutional right to hang 7-foot-wide banners in his classroom about America’s religious heritage, the 9th Circuit ruled.
The federal appeals court in Pasadena unanimously reversed a judge’s ruling that Poway Unified School District had violated veteran teacher Bradley Johnson’s First Amendment rights when it ordered him to remove the classroom banners in 2007.
Johnson claimed that he had displayed the banners in various forms as a teacher for more than 30 years. The two banners were each about 7-feet wide and 2-feet tall, according to the ruling. “One had red, white, and blue stripes and stated in large block type: ‘In God We Trust’; ‘One Nation Under God”; ‘God Bless America’; and, ‘God Shed His Grace On Thee.'” The other stated: “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator,” with the word “creator” singled out with letters double the size of the other text.
The district launched an investigation after receiving a complaint from another teacher and ordered Johnson to remove the banners. Johnson filed a federal complaint, alleging that Poway had violated his rights under the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and various articles of state law.
Johnson claimed that his banners presented a patriotic message, not a religious viewpoint. He also took the seemingly contradictory position that the banners did not offend students’ beliefs any more than other allegedly religious messages displayed in the district’s classrooms. He argued that items such as “Tibetan prayer flags; a John Lennon poster with ‘Imagine’ lyrics; a Mahatma Gandhi poster; a poster of Gandhi’s ‘7 Social Sins’; a Dalai Lama poster; a poster that says, ‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality’; and a poster of Malcolm X” remain intact even though they display “sectarian viewpoints.”
U.S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez agreed and granted Johnson summary judgment, but a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit issued a sweeping reversal Tuesday. The panel found that, as a government employee, and one with a “captive” audience of students, Bradley does not have the same rights at work as he does in other forums.
“When Bradley Johnson, a high school calculus teacher, goes to work and performs the duties he is paid to perform, he speaks not as an individual, but as a public employee, and the school district is free to ‘take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message is neither garbled nor distorted,” Judge Richard Tallman wrote. “Just as the Constitution would not protect Johnson were he to decide that he no longer wished to teach math at all, preferring to discuss Shakespeare rather than Newton, it does not permit him to speak as freely at work in his role as a teacher about his views on God, our nation’s history, or God’s role in our nation’s history as he might on a sidewalk, in a park, at his dinner table, or in countless other locations.”
The panel similarly rejected Johnson’s claims under the establishment and equal-protection clauses. It remanded the case for entry of summary judgment in favor of Poway Unified School District and its officials on all of the teacher’s federal and state claims.
“Though Johnson maintains that his banners express purely patriotic sentiments – that they concern ‘well-known historical, patriotic phrases and slogans central to our nation’s history’ – it seems as plain to us as it was to school officials that Johnson’s banners concern religion,” Tallman wrote.
“One would need to be remarkably unperceptive to see [the banners] as organized and displayed by Johnson and not understand them to convey a religious message,” he added.