9th Circuit rules in case of teacher who posted “In God We Trust”, other banners in classroom

Johnson v. Poway Unified School Dist., No. 10-55445 (9th Cir.


Before: Barry G. Silverman, Richard C. Tallman, and
Richard R. Clifton, Circuit Judges.
Opinion by Judge Tallman

We consider whether a public school district infringes the First Amendment liberties of one of its teachers when it orders him not to use his public position as a pulpit from which to preach his own views on the role of God in our Nation’s history to the captive students in his mathematics classroom. The answer is clear: it does not. When Bradley Johnson, a high school calculus teacher, goes to work and performs the duties he is paid to perform, he speaks not as an individual, but as a public employee, and the school district is free to “take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message is neither garbled nor distorted.” Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819, 833 (1995). Just as the Constitution would not protect Johnson were he to decide that he no longer wished to teach math at all, preferring to discuss Shakespeare rather than Newton, it does not permit him to speak as freely at work in his role as a teacher about his views on God, our Nation’s history, or God’s role in our Nation’s history as he might on a sidewalk, in a park, at his dinner table, or in countless other locations.

Because we further conclude that the school district did not violate Johnson’s rights under either the Establishment or Equal Protection clauses of the United States Constitution, as applied by the Fourteenth Amendment, 1 we reverse the district court’s award of summary judgment to Johnson and remand with instructions to enter summary judgment in favor of the Poway Unified School District and its officials on all federal and state claims.

[. . . ]

In late 2006, a fellow teacher at Westview set this action in motion when he questioned Dawn Kastner, the newly hired principal of Westview, about two large banners prominently displayed in Johnson’s classroom. Kastner, who had also heard about Johnson’s banners from a student and another teacher, went to Johnson’s classroom to see the banners for herself. What she found surprised her. In Johnson’s classroom, two large banners, each about seven-feet wide and twofeet tall, hung on the wall. See Appendix. One had red, white,
and blue stripes and stated in large block type: “IN GOD WE TRUST”; “ONE NATION UNDER GOD”; “GOD BLESS AMERICA”; and, “GOD SHED HIS GRACE ON THEE.”
The other stated: “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their CREATOR.” On that banner, the word
“creator” occupied its own line, and each letter of “creator” was capitalized and nearly double the size of the other text . . .