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Court Backs Teacher's Display of Banners Mentioning God

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A federal district judge has issued a ruling suggesting that a California teacher has a right to display banners in his public school classroom with such slogans as "In God We Trust," "One Nation Under God," and "God Bless America."

Judge Roger T. Benitez of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California rejected a motion by the Poway Unified School District and other defendants to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the teacher, Bradley Johnson.

Johnson, who has hung some of the banners for as long as 25 years in his classroom at Westview High School, was told by his principal in 2007 to remove the banners because they conveyed "a Judeo-Christian viewpoint," according to court papers. The teacher sued on First Amendment free speech grounds.

Judge Benitez held in the Sept. 4 opinion that the Poway school district had created a limited open forum at the school in which teachers had a right of free speech. The district has permitted other teachers to display a wide variety of messages on their classroom walls, including posters with Buddhist and Islamic messages, and Tibetan prayer flags, the judge noted.

The judge said he did not view Johnson's banners as communicating a religious Judeo-Christian message.

"Rather, the banners communicate fundamental political messages and celebrate important American shared historical experiences," the judge said.

The court rejected the school district's arguments that Johnson's speech could be regulated because he was a government employee and the speech was part of his duties, and an argument that the banners were curricular in nature and the district has the right to control the curriculum.

The Thomas More Law Center, which is representing Johnson, has a picture of the teacher and his banners on its Web site, and has this press release about the case.

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This is a major challenge, because it could also be argued that since these phrases are located in the nation's founding documents and on its currency, that the teacher was celebrating the nation's heritage.

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