Sunday, September 18, 2011

Math Teacher’s Classroom Banners Don’t Add Up



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Bradley Johnson, a high school calculus teacher and faculty sponsor of the Westview High School Christian Club sued the Poway Unified School District alleging it violated his right to free speech by requiring him to remove banners emphasizing God from his classroom. The banners, which measured seven feet wide by two feet high, stated in large block type “IN GOD WE TRUST,” “ONE NATION UNDER GOD,” “GOD BLESS AMERICA,” “GOD SHED HIS GRACE ON THEE,” and “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their CREATOR.” While Johnson viewed the banners as his way of “celebrating religious heritage in America,” Westview High School Principal Dawn Kastner and other teachers saw the banners as promoting a religious viewpoint that could potentially make students who didn’t share that same viewpoint feel uncomfortable. Kastner suggested that the passages contained on the banners be displayed within their historical context, such as displaying the complete Declaration of Independence or the full Pledge of Allegiance. She also suggested Johnson reduce the size of the banners, but the teacher refused telling Kastner that he had displayed the banners since 1982 and that he considered it his “right to have them up.” Johnson removed the banners and shortly thereafter filed a lawsuit against the school district in federal district court, claiming his first and fourteenth amendment rights were being violated.

Johnson argued that other teachers in the school district were allowed to hang various posters and displays that, in his opinion, were religious in nature, such as Tibetan prayer flags, a Dalai Lama poster, and a Mahatma Gandhi poster. The court ruled in Johnson’s favor finding the school district had impermissibly limited Johnson’s speech and ordered the District not to interfere Johnson’s future display.

The school board appealed the decision, and on September 13, 2011, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling. The appeals court said that unlike Johnson’s banners, which offered a clear religious message, the Dalai Lama poster, Tibetan prayer flags, and other classroom posters did not endorse any religious beliefs. According to Appeals court Judge Richard Tallman, “One would need to be remarkably unperceptive to see the [posted] statements… as organized and displayed by Johnson and not understand them to convey a religious message.” The court’s ruling also hinged on its finding that as a high school calculus teacher Johnson speaks “not as an individual, but as a public employee.” “The Constitution,” it said, “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.”

Johnson plans to appeal the ruling, saying he will take his case all the way to the Supreme Court, no matter the cost.

Law and Religion come into constant conflict over the question of what can and cannot be displayed in public school classrooms. I agree with the Appellate court ruling against Bradley Johnson. While his banners portray common phrases that most, if not all of his students would recognize, the size and overall message of these banners conflict with what should be a secular classroom. Certainly they have no connection to the subject of calculus or other mathematic classes. Clearly the fact that Johnson is the sponsor of the Christian club shows that Johnson has strong ties to Christianity and that the true intent of displaying the banners in his classroom was to emphasize and impose his beliefs on all students who matriculated through his classroom. The fact he refused Kastner’s alternative options belies his ulterior motive for hanging the banners. The options offered to him – hanging a poster of the complete Pledge of Allegiance or hanging smaller posters was a fair and equitable response to the situation. The fact Johnson chose to remove the banners completely and take the matter to court proves the banners were of particular religious importance to Johnson and were not a way to celebrate American heritage, like he originally stated. As the 9th Circuit so aptly pointed out, as a teacher, Johnson is not speaking as an individual but as a public employee. He is expected to be a voice of neutrality within his classroom and therefore should focus more on displaying posters of mathematical equations, leaving his religious views to the confines of the Christian club, not his calculus classroom.

11 comments:

Allison S said...

I agree with Jean in that these posters are obviously meant to promote Johnson’s religious affiliation. Although in most cases I would agree that a person has a right to their First and Fourteenth Amendment, Johnson’s job requires that he is a role model for students. Since he is employed by a public institution he must comply with what the states mandates, even if it infringes on how he expresses himself or his beliefs. If Johnson cannot comply with the state he should look into working at a private school where he can hang his posters up for all of his students to see.

Elena T said...

I agree, Johnson's motives in posting these posters was clear. It was blatantly obvious that he was trying to get his message across about God. As a public employee it is unfair to the school and his students to have the poster up. It is one thing to have a poster of the Pledge of Allegiance or a patriotic song, but highlighting all lines referencing God, is wrong. By ruling against Johnson, I feel it will make students more comfortable. In regards to his constitutional rights I feel that they were not violated due to the position he holds as a state employee.

Harry R. said...

While I agree with Jean that Johnson's position as a public school teacher result in more strict rules regarding his actions, I am concerned over the appellate court's statement regarding the religious message aspect of the banners. Since the other religious symbols mentioned such as Tibetan prayer flags were not disputed, I am concerned by the specific intent aspect of the issue. What is and what is not a religious message is a tricky subject, and I would be more comfortable with this ruling if this phrase were given clearer meaning and did not have so discretionary a basis.

Sophie K said...

I agree with Harry in the sense that I too am skeptical of the judge’s ruling. How can we be sure that students don’t perceive the Tibetan prayer flag as a religious symbol? I think the court should have gone further in clarifying and perhaps defining what a religious symbol or message is. I also think that Jean correctly pointed out that public schools must maintain religious neutrality and public school teachers, who are employees and therefore agents of these public schools, should not defy this objective. Johnson’s sign unquestionably advocated a religious viewpoint.

David P said...

Without a doubt this is establishment of religion and should not be allowed in a public school. Although not sanctioned by the school, the teacher is an authority figure and commands the attention of the class. Displaying religious slogans and symbols within the classroom is unacceptable. Although the teacher plans to 'take this to the supreme court,' i do not think he will find much help there.
What he personally believes, and how he decorates his private space at home is one thing, but public displays in schools are unacceptable from a teacher.

Justin E said...

I do agree with Jean that seeing as Johnson chose to remove the banners completely and take the matter to court proves the banners were of particular religious importance to him. However, they have been hung up since the 1980's so I can understand Johnson's frustration too. I do not believe Johnson's Fourteenth Amendment Rights had been violated because the school seemed to be fair in allowing him to shrink the size of the banners and keep them on the wall, or hang up the pledge of allegiance. Johnson however, decided to fight against the school district. This ties in with his First Amendment Rights also. I feel Johnson's religious freedoms were not being imposed upon. If the school had given him no other option but to remove the banners, that would have been a different situation altogether. Sad thought though how 30 years ago this would not have been such a big issue, but today's society must be so politically correct, that a banner containing the word "God" on it causes such a conflict.

Grace R said...

I agree with Jean that the posters that Johnson posted in his classroom were wildly inappropriate. The posters were blatantly imposing certain religious beliefs onto his students. This is a public school, and public schools have to maintain a sense of secularity. Those posters are the beliefs of one man, not of the state itself. Instead of filling a lawsuit, perhaps Johnson should be looking for a private school to teach at, where personal opinions are allowed or encouraged.

Molly Veelguski said...

I also agree with Jean. These posters were created in an exaggerated manner and placed within his classroom to promote a certain message. These banners are an establishment of religion and therefore should not be permitted within the classroom. His motives are clear and the fact that he took down the banners reinforced the idea that these banners were for a religious purpose. I agree with Jean that Johnson is expected to be neutral voice and his posters should reflect this neutrality, which is not difficult. Calculus does involve a multitude of formulas that could easily take up as much space as those religious banners did.

BryceS said...

I agree in that Johnson’s message was clear and that he was imposing his beliefs onto his students. Yes, he is celebrating American heritage, but the heritage he is celebrating is the religious roots of this nation. America today has redefined what it means to have separation between church and state, which brings question to these phrases altogether. However, this situation is complicated, because the messages are phrases and slogans of this country (“in God We Trust” is all over our currency), so his motive has to be defined. I believe his motive is evident, and that he needs to revise his portrayal of this heritage in order to maintain a neutral classroom setting.

Andrew Lichtenauer said...

There is no question that the posters displayed in Johnson's classroom are inappropriate for a public school. The goal of any educational institution (whether public or private) should be to promote students to think freely for themselves. There are many other ways in which Johnson can express his faith. What he must understand is that religious views are personal, and when working in a public institution you should not be allowed to impose your personal religious views on anyone - especially impressionable children.

Jon W. said...

I agree with the majority that Johnson was incorrect in decorating his classroom with religious posters. It is a public school and religion does not belong in a state funded institution. Johnson is a government employee and by hanging religious posters he is not respecting a separation of church and state. I also agree with Harry that the Tibetan prayer flag should also be addressed. If one religion is not allowed all religious things from all over the world should not be allowed.