A nonprofit law center has taken up a petition with the Supreme Court over a controversial case involving a California math teacher who had patriotic banners with Christian messages removed from his classroom – while displays related to other faiths were allowed to remain on campus.
A 30-year policy by the Poway School District in California had allowed Bradley Johnson, a high school teacher, to place banners in the style of the American flag with phrases such as "In God We Trust," "One Nation Under God," and "God Bless America" in his classroom. He had done so without any controversy for the past 25 years, with not one student or parent complaining.
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, which took up the Bradley Johnson v. Poway Unified School District case, shared in an interview with The Christian Post that the policy changed in 2007, when school officials told Johnson he could no longer display his banners.
Officials removed the banners from his classroom, but at the same time allowed Tibetan prayer flags and images of the Buddhist spiritual leader Dalai Lama, as well as posters of American Muslim Malcolm X, Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, and other religious displays to remain in other classrooms.
Initially, Federal District Judge Robert T. Benitez ruled in February 2010 in favor of the Thomas More Law Center, agreeing that the Poway School District was opposing Johnson's First Amendment rights. But a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and ruled in favor of banning the Christian displays.
"They decided they were going to look at it as a case dealing with a government employee and therefore said that the government gets to control what its employees are going to say," Thompson explained.
He offered his interpretation of the judge's decision to ban the Christian banners but allow all others:
"The court basically said that 'We don't feel that the observer would really look at this as an attempt to convert people to their faith – therefore, there is a difference, and we are not going to look at that difference.'
"In our view, it was a total rationalization of the conclusion that they wanted to reach based on their ideology. They tried to justify it by saying that it might offend a Muslim student."
The Thomas More Law Center president claims that the ruling by the Ninth Circuit court judges is "a clear violation" of the First Amendment. "Once you open the door to teachers to display material that reflects their personal values and interests, you can not then say 'but we are not going to allow teachers to put up anything that supports a Judeo-Christian viewpoint.' "
Thompson revealed that he is confident that if the Supreme Court grants the petition for review, then they will overturn the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision.
However, when asked if he sees a growing trend of lawsuits challenging religious freedom in the country, he said:
"Absolutely. In the cultural elite – in Hollywood, the media, television – they always attempt to portray Christians in a negative view. We see Nativity scenes challenged, we see Christians being banned from praying at graduation; the public attention Tim Tebow receives – some ridiculing him for taking his prayerful pose after a win."
"Christianity in America is under attack." he insisted. "That is why we were established more than a decade ago – to fight those attacks. We are a Christian organization to goes into the court rooms and fights back against lawsuits threatening to challenge freedom of speech and freedom of religion."
As an example of the growing problem, he offered other cases the Law Center has been involved in in the past.
"We have worked on several cases like this where there have been violations of First Amendment rights in the public school system," he said. "Often we have represented students expressing pro-life positions, or positions dealing with homosexuality where they have been punished by the school. Other instances include Americans wearing red, white and blue T-shirts during the Mexican holiday of Cinco De Mayo, where schools have forced students to take off their T-shirts or turn them inside out."
In another case involving religious freedom, Vanderbilt University Christian student groups were placed on "provisional status" over discriminatory issues – because their groups required their leaders to share the same beliefs and values as their members.