Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Teacher's Victory

U.S. District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez has ruled against a San Diego, Calif., school that required one of its teachers to remove signs celebrating the role of God in American history from his classroom walls.

Westview High School math teacher, Bradley Johnson, had banners hanging in his classroom for 17 years. But, the signs — with phrases such as "In God We Trust" and "All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed by Their Creator" — were ordered to be torn down during the 2007 school year by the principal. The district, however, permits other teachers to hang Buddhist, Islamic and Tibetan prayer messages on their classroom walls. Johnson filed a lawsuit alleging the order was a violation of his constitutional rights.

The federal judge, in his ruling, declared: "May a school district censor a high school teacher's expression because it refers to Judeo-Christian views, while allowing other teachers to express views on a number of controversial subjects, including religion and anti-religion? ... On undisputed evidence, this court holds that it may not.

"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."

"[While teachers in the district] encourage students to celebrate diversity and value thinking for one's self, [they] apparently fear their students are incapable of dealing with diverse viewpoints that include God's place in American history and culture," Judge Benitez stated.

In response to the school district's claim that Johnson's patriotic banners might make a Muslim student, for example, uncomfortable, Judge Benitez said, "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."

Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel for the Thomas More Law Center, commented on the case they filed for Johnson: "It was refreshing to read an opinion that does justice to our nation's history, rather than rewrite it."

The judge concluded in his ruling that Johnson was entitled to a declaration that the school violated his constitutional rights and ordered the district to pay nominal damages of $10 per defendant plus Johnson's attorney's fees and costs. Benitez also ordered the school district to allow Johnson to immediately rehang the signs. []

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