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Teacher can sue on banner ban

Judge rules against the Poway district that ordered slogans with religious themes out of a classroom.

September 11, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A high school mathematics teacher has won a round in federal court in his fight to put "God Bless America" and "One Nation Under God" banners back in his classroom.

Brad Johnson, a teacher at Westview High in San Diego County, had the banners up in his classroom for two decades, but last year the principal ordered him to take them down, saying they were an impermissible attempt to make a Judeo-Christian statement to his students.

Johnson sued in federal court. Poway Unified School District officials sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that, as a public employee, Johnson had only limited 1st Amendment rights while on the job and that the principal had authority over what was put on classroom walls.

In a blistering 23-page decision, U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez rejected the district's motion as legally faulty and blasted its "brash" attempt to take down the banners. The jurist noted that the district allowed other teachers to put up posters with Buddhist and Islamic messages, posters of rock bands including Nirvana and the Clash, and Tibetan prayer rugs.

Johnson's banners, Benitez wrote, were patriotic expressions deeply rooted in American history.

"By squelching only Johnson's patriotic expression, the school district does a disservice to the students of Westview High School, and the federal and state constitutions do not permit such one-sided censorship," Benitez wrote in a ruling issued last week.

The school district's attorney, Jack M. Sleeth Jr., said Wednesday that the school board would meet in closed session next week to discuss whether to appeal the ruling, settle the case or advance to trial. He said the principal made her decision after receiving a complaint about the banners.

"It's an extremely complex issue," Sleeth said. "It's not as simple as the teacher loves the Lord and we tried to stop him. He was hired to teach mathematics. What do these banners have to do with mathematics?"

Sleeth said the district offered to let the banners remain if Johnson would provide material showing the historical context of the messages on them. But he refused, Sleeth said.

Johnson is seeking to restore the banners, which include "In God We Trust" and "God Shed His Grace on Thee," and to be compensated for $30,000 in legal fees.

The lawsuit was filed by the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, which supports cases involving religious issues nationwide. The center is also representing a Marine lieutenant colonel facing court-martial at Camp Pendleton for allegedly not investigating a possible war crime by troops in Haditha, Iraq.

Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel for the law center, suggested that the Poway district should settle rather than advance to trial.

"Many public schools exhibit a knee-jerk hostility toward Christianity," he said.

In his ruling, Benitez noted that Johnson had never referred to the banners while teaching.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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