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Court orders school to allow teacher’s religious poster in classroom

A federal court in California found that ordering a teacher to take down his religious banners violated his First Amendment right and ordered the school district to allow a teacher to hang religious posters in his classroom when other teachers were allowed to hang religious posters in their classrooms.

For many years the math teacher had displayed two banners in his classroom. The banners contained the phrases "In God We Trust," "One Nation Under God," "God Bless America," and "God Shed His Grace On Thee," and the other banner read "All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator." Moreover, other teacher's had religious posters in their rooms, including  banners with Buddhist and Islamic messages and Tibetan prayer flags. Although no one had complained about the teacher's two banners, the school's principal ordered him to remove them from the classroom walls. The teacher sued the school and asked the court to require the school to allow him to re-hang the banners. The teacher did not ask for money damages.

The court ruled that the school violated the teachers First Amendment Right and ordered the school to allow the teacher to re-hang his banners. The court applied a "forum analysis," instead of a Pickering/Connick governmental-employer balancing test. A forum analysis assesses the extent to which a forum has been opened to the public. Forum types include nonpublic, limited public, and public forums. The court determined that the school’s classrooms were a limited public forum. A limited public forum is created when the government permits expressive conduct on property that was originally not open to expressive conduct.

In this case, the government permitted expressive conduct through a school district policy  permitting "teacher speech" that does not disrupt school work or cause substantial disorder. Upon issuing this policy, the school gave the teachers a right express themselves in the classroom. Entities operating limited public forums may only maintain regulations that are reasonable in light of the of the purposes served by the forum and that do not viewpoint discriminate. The court held that the order to remove the banners constituted viewpoint discrimination because the school did not order other teachers to remove their religiously affiliated content.

Johnson v Poway Unified School District, Case No. 07cv783 (S.D. Cal 2010).

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