Faithandthelaw's Blog

The law as it relates to Christians and their free exercise of religion

The Classroom Wall of Separation

Posted by faithandthelaw on March 14, 2010

By David Waters
The classroom walls of San Diego’s Westview High are a monument to freedom of speech and religion. Over the years, teachers have attached an eclectic collection of expressions that includes Tibetan prayer flags, John Lennon lyrics (“Imagine there’s no heaven”), Gandhi’s “7 Social Sins,” photos of Malcolm X and Nirvana, an image of Buddha, bumper stickers that tell students to “Celebrate Diversity” and “Dare to Think for Yourself,” and — thanks to a federal judge’s ruling last week — four banners that include the word “God.”
Three years ago, in a confounding display of political correctness, school district officials ordered 30-year math teacher Bradley Johnson — and only Johnson — to remove the expressions on his classroom walls because they “over-emphasized God.” The banners said: “In God We Trust”, “One Nation Under God”, “God Bless America” and “God Shed His Grace on Thee.” Johnson looked around at the other teachers’ walls, did the math and took his case to court. Last week, U.S. Dist. Judge Roger T. Benitez ruled in favor of Johnson:
“By opening classroom walls to the non-disruptive expression of all its teachers, the district provides students with a healthy exposure to the diverse ideas and opinions of its individual teachers. Fostering diversity, however, does not mean bleaching out historical religious expression or mainstream morality. By squelching only Johnson’s patriotic and religious classroom banners, while permitting other diverse religious and anti-religious classroom displays, the school district does a disservice to the students of Westview High School and the federal and state constitutions do not permit this one-sided censorship.”
Johnson’s banners are back up. Bill Chiment, the school district’s associate superintendent, said the district plans to appeal the ruling, seeking further guidance about how much control they have over what teachers display in classrooms. “It is not just about these particular banners in this particular room,” Chiment said in the statement. “We are concerned with the lawsuits we will get in the future if the district cannot control what goes up on classroom walls.”
It’s an interesting question. What messages can or should teachers display on the walls of public school classrooms? Are some messages too religious?
U.S. courts have been clear that expressly religious messages and symbols — crosses or Crucifixes, Stars of David, Scripture passes — are forbidden in public school displays. Earlier this week, a federal judge approved a consent order that a Tennessee school district “shall not display religious symbols or quotes from the Bible or other sacred books texts in or on the classroom walls.”
That standard seems to apply even in Europe. Last year in predominantly Catholic Italy, the European Court of Human Rights ruled — over the objections of the Vatican and the Italian government — that public schools cannot display Crucifixes.
But what about more subtle religious references?
Is a photo of Gandhi a subtle endorsement of Hinduism, a photo of Malcolm X an endorsement of Islam, a photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa an endorsement of Christianity?
Are Tibetan prayer flags pro-Buddhist or anti-Communist? Are John Lennon lyrics anti-religion? Is the word “God” a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause?
Is it possible to teach students about American or the world without any references to religion?
The Constitution demands that public education be neutral, not ignorant, about matters of religion.
Or as Judge Benitez more sharply put it: “That God places prominently in our Nation’s history does not create an Establishment Clause violation requiring curettage and disinfectant for Johnson’s public high school classroom walls. It is a matter of historical fact that our institutions and government actors have in past and present times given place to a supreme God.”
There’s an instructive message that would look good.

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