Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Taking God Out Of One Public School Classroom

How much freedom should a public school teacher have to express his or her religious beliefs on his or her classroom walls? That question is being hotly debated in one San Diego-area classroom where administrators ordered one veteran teacher to remove materials from his classroom walls that refer to the Deity:
ANN ARBOR, MI – The Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, announced today that it has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Poway Unified School District, located in San Diego, California. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Brad Johnson, a respected teacher who has been teaching in the school district for 30 years. The lawsuit claims that school officials violated Johnson’s constitutional rights by ordering him to remove several educational banners from his classroom walls because, according to these officials, the banners promote a “Judeo-Christian” viewpoint.

The banners, which Johnson had displayed in his classroom without complaint for nearly 25 years, contained the following phrases: “In God We Trust,” the official motto of the United States; “One Nation Under God,” the 1954 amendment to the Pledge of Allegiance; “God Bless America,” a patriotic song considered to be the unofficial national anthem of the United States; “God Shed His Grace On Thee,” a line from “America the Beautiful,” a popular patriotic song; and “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator,” an excerpt from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. School officials objected to the banners because they included the words “God” and “Creator.”

Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel for the Law Center, commented, “Cleansing our Nation’s classrooms of our religious heritage and history and imposing viewpoint restrictions on speech to silence such expressions advance no legitimate educational purpose. In fact, such actions undermine the primary purpose of public education: to prepare students for citizenship in our Republic.”

The lawsuit alleges that the school district violated Johnson’s constitutional rights by imposing a viewpoint-based restriction on his speech. It further alleges that this restriction “serves no valid educational purpose, is not reasonably related to any legitimate pedagogical concern, and conveys a government-sponsored message of disapproval of and hostility toward religion” in violation of the United States and California Constitutions.

Robert Muise, the Law Center attorney handling the case, commented, “It is without question that religious people founded this Nation. As a result, references to God are common in our songs, mottoes, and slogans. And it is the responsibility of our Nation’s public schools to educate students to be informed citizens. Consequently, it is the responsibility of all public school teachers, including Mr. Johnson, to educate students regarding our Nation’s history and its founding. Mr. Johnson’s educational banners serve that purpose.”

The lawsuit seeks to have the speech restriction overturned so that Johnson can continue to display his banners, as he had been for 25 years.
So... were the authorities who removed the material from the classroom walls protecting students from religious proselytizing? Or did they unduly suppress a teacher's religious expression? You make the call.
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