Math teacher must be allowed to hang God banners
A federal court in California ruled last Friday that high school math teacher Bradley Johnson must be allowed by his school to hang banners that feature God in his classroom. Johnson was ordered by the district to remove the banners in 2007, and he sued the school alleging a violation of his Constitutional rights.
Johnson was represented by The Thomas Moore Law Center, which announced the ruling Friday. Johnson’s attorneys and other conservative Christian commentators call the ruling a “victory for God.” The court’s opinion, available here, shows
The clash of interests
Johnson’s posters contained the phrases: “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America” and “God Sheds His Grace On thee,” and “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their CREATOR.”
Johnson, the district, and the students each have their own interests in this matter, and they represent clashing interests in society as a whole. Modern US society involves tension between public individuals’ rights to free speech with the needs of society, including the separation between church and state.
In this kind of case, it is not immediately and completely clear which set of interests should prevail. Teachers should not forfeit all of their personal rights of free speech when they enter the classroom, but schools should not be seen as promoting particular religions, either.
The court criticized the district’s actions in several instances, including this paragraph:
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.
The court’s point is well taken that God is present in the country’s historical documents, and historical revision in the name of political correctness is counter-productive. However, this approach misses
The unconstitutionality of the district’s order to Johnson to remove his banners hinged on viewpoint neutrality, which the court eventually does discuss. The walls of the high school become a limited forum, in which government regulation of messages must be viewpoint neutral. The same legal principle is at the core of a case before the Supreme Court now, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.
Quest for consistency
One problem for the district is consistency. The school evidently permits other teachers to hang posters containing Buddhist, Islamic and Tibetan symbols on their classroom walls, but balked at Johnson’s Christian messages. This led to the court’s finding that the district singled Johnson out on the basis of his viewpoint in an unacceptable manner. Other non-curricular messages that Johnson used to support his position included:
- A poster of John Lennon and the lyrics to the song “Imagine”
- Posters of Mahatma Gandhi, the Dali Lama, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
- A Greenpeace poster that says: “Stop Global Warming.”
- Bumper stickers that say: “Equal Rights Are Not Special Rights,” “Dare to Think for Yourself,” and “Celebrate Diversity.
- An anti-war poster that asks: “How many Iraqi children did we kill today?”
Two easy ways of achieving a consistent rule for appropriate classroom decorations would be to allow anything or ban all private messages by teachers. Neither of these extremes is necessary, though, if a reasonable line can be drawn. In initial reactions, different people will react differently to the above examples because of their own biases. It is possible, however, to craft viewpoint neutral rules regulating what kinds of non-curricular messages public school teachers can display in their classrooms.
One reasonable standard would be for schools to allow teachers to display messages on their walls only if the messages were related to the curriculum of the class. English teachers could display quotes from literature; social studies teachers could display quotes from historical leaders; government or history teachers could display messages like those Johnson did. This standard recognizes that the limited forum in each classroom is necessarily limited to the curriculum of the class. The material in certain classes lends well to discussion of politics or religion, but in other classes, these views may be distracting or intimidating.
Another reasonable standard would be to allow displays that involve religion or politics as long as they are not inappropriately advocacy related. This would be a fuzzier standard, but that doesn’t make it inferior. A poster containing the entire Declaration of Independence could not really be seen as an attempt to push any particular political or religious view on students. The same is true for a poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. or another world leader. But Displays like Johnson’s pretty clearly appear to be part of an advocacy agenda and such things are inappropriate in a math classroom context.
In the vein of consistency, Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist) asks what the outcome would be if an atheist math teacher put up large anti-Christian banners in the classroom. Atheists are among the most discriminated groups in American society. Examples involving their freedoms often expose underlying hypocrisy in how standards would be applied.
In this case, Johnson seems to have a legitimate point. His displays were unfairly targeted by the school in an inconsistent application of district policy. But it does not follow that his display is appropriate for the classroom. Public schools need to develop reasonable, consistent standards for situations like these, and they need to enforce them fairly. Christian advocacy displays in the classroom when they are totally unrelated to the curriculum are no more or less appropriate than Wiccan, atheist, Muslim, or Buddhist displays.