It’s another win for religious freedom and another loss for the Thomas More Law Center. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a San Diego-area teacher who sued after the school told him he couldn’t load his room up with banners and posters whose sole purpose was to proselytize his students. The ruling describes the posters:
In Johnson’s classroom, two large banners, each about seven-feet wide and two feet tall, hung on the wall. One had red, white, and blue stripes and stated in large block type: “IN GOD WE TRUST”; “ONE NATION UNDER GOD”; “GOD BLESS AMERICA”; and, “GOD SHED HIS GRACE ON THEE.” The other stated: “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their CREATOR.” On that banner, the word “creator” occupied its own line, and each letter of “creator” was capitalized and nearly double the size of the other text.
The court was crystal clear in its ruling:
We consider whether a public school district infringes the First Amendment liberties of one of its teachers when it orders him 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. The answer is clear: it does not.
When Bradley Johnson, a high school calculus teacher, goes to work and performs the duties he is paid to perform,
he speaks not as an individual, but as a public employee, and the school district is free to “take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message is neither garbled nor distorted.” 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.
The district court had actually ruled in favor of the teacher but the appeals court reversed that ruling. The teacher’s argument was that the school allowed other teachers to post items that he considered to be religious in nature and thus had violated the equal protection clause:
After the lawsuit was filed, Johnson conducted site inspections at all four high schools in the school district. He identified and photographed a lengthy list of items he believed displayed sectarian viewpoints, including Tibetan prayer flags; a John Lennon poster with “Imagine” lyrics; a Mahatma Gandhi poster; a poster of Gandhi’s “7 Social Sins”; a Dalai Lama poster; a poster that says, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality”; and a poster of Malcolm X.
In evaluating the constitutionality of the other displays, we think the court neglected its own admonishment that government speech “ ‘[s]imply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.’ ” Admittedly, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Malcolm X each have some religious connotation. However, as the district court noted, simple connotation does not run afoul of Lemon. The same is true of the other posters. Each would be violative only if used to endorse or inhibit religion, and nothing in the record suggests such use here.
The Tibetan prayer flags are no different. Though some amici suggest that the flags are so recognizably religious that their use “as an instrument of religion cannot be gainsaid,” the record contains only evidence to the contrary. Lori Brickley, the science teacher who provided the flags, testified that she had no idea as to whether the flags had any particular or significant religious import, only that she had been told they represented “the basic elements” Tibetan people believe “necessary for their life.” She also noted that though one of the flags contains a small picture of Buddha not one of her students had ever identified the flags as religious.
Furthermore, Brickley testified that the flags were neither hung nor used for any religious purpose. She explained that she uses the flags as part of her discussion of fossils found on and near Mount Everest because the flags are authentic — bought in Nepal near Mount Everest — and are typically purchased by climbers to put “at the top of Mount Everest when they reach the peak.” She described how she typically shows a video of scientists taking cores samples on Everest and uses the flags to further stimulate the interest of her students. She said that the flags “represent climbing a mountain” and accomplishing “an amazing goal.”
Limited to these facts, we would not think that an objective observer could conclude that the flags were displayed for a religious purpose. Rather, the undisputed evidence supports a common-sense conclusion that the flags are intended to stimulate scientific interest, not religious pressure (or even permissible religious discussion).
You can read the full ruling here. No word on whether the teacher will appeal.