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Court says teacher has no right to banners referring to God

San Diego-area high school math instructor claimed his 1st Amendment rights were violated when the principal ordered him to take down banners he saw as celebrating America's religious heritage.

September 14, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Bradley Johnson stands in front of the classroom banners that his school's principal ordered him to take down.
Bradley Johnson stands in front of the classroom banners that his school's… (Thomas More Legal Center )

Reporting from San Diego -- A federal appeals court Tuesday rejected the claim of a San Diego-area mathematics teacher that his 1st Amendment rights were violated when the school's principal ordered him to take down classroom banners that referred to God.

A panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the principal and school board had the same authority as any employer to set limits on the speech of employees.

Bradley Johnson, a mathematics teacher in the Poway Unified School District, had displayed banners in his classrooms for two decades that he saw as celebrating the religious heritage of America, including "In God We Trust," "God Bless America," and "God Shed His Grace on Thee."

But after he transferred to a new school, a new principal in 2007 ordered the banners taken down.

The size of the banners — some 7 feet wide by 2 feet high — made them "a promotion of a particular viewpoint," Principal Dawn Kastner is quoted as saying in the court's 40-page opinion.

Johnson, who sponsors the Christian club at the school, Westview High School in Rancho Penasquitos, said he thought he was being singled out because the phrases involved Christianity. The banners came down, and Johnson filed a lawsuit.

To Johnson, the banners were no more an assertion of a religious point of view than the Tibetan prayer flag, Dalai Lama poster and Malcolm X poster that other teachers had in their classrooms.

Federal Judge Roger Benitez last year sided with Johnson, ruling that Poway district officials had violated Johnson's right to free speech. He ordered that Johnson receive a token $10 each from nine district officials who participated in ordering him to take down the banners.

After the ruling, Johnson restored the banners to their original places.

The school board appealed. Tuesday's unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based court reverses Benitez's ruling.

In its decision, the court ruled that Benitez confused overall restrictions placed on a government agency when it tries to regulate free speech of private citizens with the more expansive right of a governmental agency to set rules for workplace speech.

The appeals court also ordered Johnson to pay the school district's legal expenses.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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