A federal appeals court in California has ruled that a public high school math teacher has no constitutional right to display posters in his classroom depicting the national motto and other phrases that refer to God.
A three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously on Tuesday that the Poway Unified School District in San Diego County did not violate the teacher’s free speech or religious expression rights when it ordered him to remove the posters.
Bradley Johnson, a 30-year teacher in the school district, had argued that other teachers at Westview High School adorn their classrooms with quasi-religious messages, including Tibetan prayer flags, a Mahatma Gandhi poster, a Dalai Lama poster, and a Malcolm X poster.
He said by directing the removal of his posters but not other religious posters, school officials were conveying a government-sponsored message of hostility toward the Christian religion and the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage.
A federal judge agreed with Mr. Johnson, ordering the school district to allow him to keep his posters up. But the federal appeals court reversed that decision.
The appeals court said Johnson was a government employee hired to teach math, not to “use his public position as a pulpit from which to preach his own views on the role of God in our nation’s history to the captive students in his mathematics classroom.”
“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,” wrote Judge Richard Tallman for the court.
One poster in Johnson’s classroom displayed the phrases: “IN GOD WE TRUST,” “ONE NATION UNDER GOD,” “GOD BLESS AMERICA,” and “GOD SHED HIS GRACE ON THEE.” A second poster proclaimed: “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their CREATOR.”
School officials objected to the display, saying it appeared to be an attempt by Johnson to use his influence as a teacher to promote a religious viewpoint.
Johnson said the posters were merely intended to highlight the nation’s religious heritage.
The appeals court disagreed. “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,” Judge Tallman wrote.
“Nothing in our holding today prevents Johnson from himself propounding his own opinion on the religious heritage and nature of our nation, or how God places prominently in our nation’s history,” Tallman said.
“He may [generally] do so on the sidewalks, in the parks, through the chat-rooms, at his dinner table, and in countless other locations. He may not do so, however, when he is speaking as the government, unless the government allows him to be its voice.”
The judge added: “Because the speech at issue owes its existence to Johnson’s position as a teacher, Poway acted well within constitutional limits in ordering Johnson not to speak in a manner it did not desire.”