Victory In California!: Appeals Court Flunks Math Teacher’s Religious Display

When Johnson is in the classroom, he’s a government employee and he’s not entitled to push a religious agenda.

California high school teacher Bradley Johnson had a funny way of instructing students about math. In his Poway Unified School District classroom, he posted two huge banners proclaiming his religious sentiments.

One seven-feet-by-two-feet banner proclaimed in large block type: “IN GOD WE TRUST,” “ONE NATION UNDER GOD,” “GOD BLESS AMERICA,” and “GOD SHED HIS GRACE ON THEE.” The other banner – of similar size – announced, “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their CREATOR.” (The word “creator” was positioned on a separate line of the banner and each letter was capitalized and nearly double the size of the other text.)

Johnson initially claimed the display was purely patriotic. (Yeah, right.) But he later conceded that he was trying to highlight the religious heritage and nature of our nation.

And what does that have to do with calculus and algebra? Nada. Zip.

So it’s not much of a surprise that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that school district officials had every right to order Johnson to take down the banners. A unanimous three-judge panel held that the teacher had no constitutional right 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 Sept. 13 appellate ruling in Johnson v. Poway Unified School District overturns a breathtakingly wrong-headed district court decision that upheld the proselytizing teacher.

Americans United did a friend-of-the-court brief at the 9th Circuit siding with the public school district. We pointed out what should be obvious: when Johnson is in the classroom, he’s a government employee and he’s not entitled to push a religious agenda.

Johnson was represented by the Thomas More Law Center, an ultra-conservative Catholic outfit founded by pizza magnate Tom Monaghan. He drew support from the Christian Educators Association International and “Christian nation” propagandist David Barton’s Wallbuilders. (The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties supported Johnson's position on narrow grounds, citing academic freedom concerns and issues of governmental preference for one viewpont over others.)

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that teachers and other school officials may not use their positions to support (or oppose) any particular religious viewpoint. This decision reaffirms that important concept, and it’s something to celebrate.