Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Curious Case

I found this article to be a real head-scratcher. What was this guy thinking?

Bradley Johnson, a mathematics teacher in the Poway Unified School District, had displayed banners in his classrooms for two decades that he saw as celebrating the religious heritage of America, including "In God We Trust," "God Bless America," and "God Shed His Grace on Thee."

But after he transferred to a new school, a new principal in 2007 ordered the banners taken down.

The size of the banners — some 7 feet wide by 2 feet high — made them "a promotion of a particular viewpoint," Principal Dawn Kastner is quoted as saying in the court's 40-page opinion.

First of all, this is a math teacher, so the banners aren't exactly promoting the classroom's subject matter. Second of all, this is a public school, not a private Christian school. Third of all, 7 foot by 2 feet? Did said teacher leave himself any room to write sample problems on the board?

Mr. Johnson sued the school district, claiming that his First Amendment free speech rights had been violated and that he had been singled out for his Christian beliefs. He won at the trial level, but the three-judge appeals court panel reversed for a very sensible reason:

In its decision, the court ruled that [trial court Judge] Benitez confused overall restrictions placed on a government agency when it tries to regulate free speech of private citizens with the more expansive right of a governmental agency to set rules for workplace speech.

Exactly right: this is a case involving the separation of church and state at its heart, not a free speech case. The public school is a government function and is not a forum for proselytizing. Mr. Johnson does not have unlimited free speech rights while acting in his capacity as a government employee.

Of course, I'm reasonably certain that's not the end of the story and that we can expect further appeals. Still, it was nice to see a little judicial common sense at any level.

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