Teacher Ordered to Remove ‘Religious’ Banners After Nearly 30 Years

After an initial court victory, a high school math teacher lost his battle to keep his “God” banners displayed in his classroom. A federal appeals court ruled on September 13, 2011 that Bradley Johnson’s First Amendment rights were not violated when he was asked by the school district to take down a series of religious banners.

Mr. Johnson had banners hanging in his classroom at Westview High School in San Diego, Calif., for more than 30 years with phrases like “In God We Trust,” “All Men Are Created Equal,” and “They Are Endowed by Their Creator.” Another sign contained the words “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America,” and “God Shed His Grace On Thee.” Each of these postings is part of America’s religious history, in particular, America’s Christian history.

“In God We Trust” is our nation’s official motto and appears prominently in the House of Representatives and on our currency. That Americans are “endowed by their Creator” is found in the Declaration of Independence. “One Nation under God” is from the Pledge of Allegiance. The phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance on June 14, 1954 by a joint resolution of Congress. “God Bless America” is a patriotic song originally written by Irving Berlin in 1918 and revised by him in 1938 because of the rise of Adolf Hitler. Here are the words from the stanza that include the words “God Bless America”:

God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.

“God Shed His Grace on Thee” is a line from the patriotic song “America the Beautiful.”

In all these examples, America’s religious heritage is evident. The principal of Westview High School did not see it this way. First, he argued that “because they were taken out of context and very large, they became a promotion of a particular viewpoint . . . that might make students who didn’t share that viewpoint uncomfortable.” So when a student pays for his lunch with money that has “In God We Trust” stamped on it, is the phrase “out of context”? Is size now the determining factor when religion is being referenced? If it’s small and out of the way it’s OK? What is its proper context and the proper font size? Who gets to make these decisions?

Are the students ignorant of the Declaration of Independence and its numerous phrases about God? What about the Constitution itself which includes the phrase “Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventieth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven. . .”?

The principal considered their posting in a government school to be a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . .” There is no indication that Congress was involved.

In the original ruling, United States District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez objected to the principal’s position using historical, legal, and logical arguments, methods of inquiry that should be taught in all schools:

May a school district censor a high school teacher’s expression because it refers to Judeo-Christian views, while allowing other teachers to express views on a number of controversial subjects, including religion and anti-religion? On undisputed evidence, this court holds that it may not. . . . 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. “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”1 As the Supreme Court has acknowledged, “[t]here is an unbroken history of official acknowledgment by all three branches of government of the role of religion in American life from at least 1789.”2

* * * * *

Fostering diversity, however, 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.3

This latest court rulings needs to explain how displaying official statements about religion that are historically verifiable can be a violation of the Constitution. This is insane. Consider this line of argument from the court:

“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.”

Talk about a straw-man argument and from a judge! Mr. Johnson didn’t stop teaching math. In fact, in what I’ve seen, he didn’t “discuss” the banners. And what if he did? A teacher’s not permitted to discuss subjects outside his field? Whatever happened to the concept of a “Renaissance Man,” a person who has the ability to teach across multiple disciplines?

I suspect that if Mr. Johnson had displayed banners with lines from Shakespeare that the principal wouldn’t have said a thing. Mr. Johnson might want to find religious statements from famous polymaths like Isaac Newton and display them. Here are some suggestions:

  • “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being.”4
  • “Opposition to godliness is atheism in profession and idolatry in practice. Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors.”5

Mr. Johnson might also want to consider similar statements from Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543), Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1627), Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), and Michael Faraday (1791–1867).

  1. Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952). []
  2. Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677, 686 (2005) (quoting Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 674 [1984]). []
  3. Bradley Johnson vs. Poway Unified School District, et al. (2010), Case No. 07cv783 BEN (NLS). Also see Article 1, Section 2(a) of the California Constitution which reads: “Every person may freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of this right. A law may not restrain or abridge liberty of speech or press.” []
  4. Principia, Book III; cited in Newton’s Philosophy of Nature: Selections from his Writings, ed. (New York: H.S. Thayer, Hafner Library of Classics, 1953), 42. []
  5. A Short Scheme of the True Religion, manuscript quoted in Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton by Sir David Brewster, Edinburgh, 1850. Cited in Newton’s Philosophy of Nature, 65. []
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