Sunday, March 7, 2010

Federal Judge Rules Against Hostility to U.S. Religious Heritage in Classroom

Via the Thomas More Law Center:

When Bradley Johnson, a math teacher at Westview High School in San Diego, California, was ordered to remove two patriotic banners from his classroom walls because they "overemphasized God," the Thomas More Law Center took up his case.

Johnson's banners displayed historical mentions of God from the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance, and well-known patriotic songs such as Irving Berlin's God Bless America, as well as the official motto of the United States.
Interestingly, the Poway Unified School District had no problem with other displays of religious, anti-religious, and political views in the school, including:
  • a 35 to 40 foot string of Tibetan prayer flags with images of Buddha,
  • a poster with the lyrics from John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” which starts off, "Imagine there’s no Heaven,"
  • a poster with Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi’s “7 Social Sins,” 
  • a poster of Muslim leader Malcolm X, and
  • a poster of Buddhist leader Dali Lama.
In the eyes of various school and district officials, the slogans mentioning God "might make a Muslim student uncomfortable," but the Tibetan prayer flags were "purely decorative."

That happened early in 2007. Earlier this week, a California Federal District Court Judge ruled that the school district had violated Johnson's constitutional rights.
That school officials banned Johnson’s patriotic displays while permitting other teachers to display personal posters and banners promoting partisan political issues such as gay rights and environmental causes, including global warming, played a crucial role in the Judge’s decision.
In his opinion, Judge Roger T. Benitez wrote:
[The school district officials] apparently fear their students are incapable of dealing with diverse viewpoints that include God’s place in American history and culture. . . .  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. 
Judge Benitez had a few choice words on "fostering diversity":
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.
About that Muslim student, the judge noted:
An imaginary Islamic student is not entitled to a heckler’s veto on a teacher’s passive, popular or unpopular expression about God’s place in the history of the United States. 
And about those Tibetan prayer flags:
[T]he judge flatly rejected the school district’s argument that Tibetan prayer flags were permissible because they were decorative, describing the argument as “a transparent pretext."
According to the Thomas More Legal Center:
Judge Benitez concluded that Johnson was entitled to a declaration that the school district violated his individual rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and Article I, §§ 2 and 4 of the California Constitution.  He ordered the school district to pay nominal damages and Johnson’s attorney’s fees and costs.  And he ordered the school district “to permit Johnson to immediately re-display, in his assigned classroom, the two banners at issue in this case.”  Johnson returned the displays to his classroom that same day. 

Robert Muise, the Thomas More Law Center Senior Trial Counsel handling the case, commented, “Judge Benitez’s strong opinion sends a clear message to school districts across the country that hostility toward our Nation’s religious heritage is contrary to our constitution.  Indeed, it was refreshing to read an opinion that does justice to our Nation’s history, rather than rewrite it.”
Thank you, Judge Benitez.  Many Americans will sleep a lot better tonight knowing that you are serving on the Federal District Court.  And thank you to Attorney Robert Muise at the Law Center, for standing guard on our nation's Constitution.

(Read the entire article and the Judge's decision here.)

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