Teacher's attempt to restore banners can go to trial

SAN DIEGO — A high school mathematics teacher has won a round in federal court in his fight to put "God Bless America" and "One Nation Under God" banners back in his classroom.

Brad Johnson, a teacher at Westview High in San Diego, had the banners up in his classroom for two decades, but last year the principal ordered him to take them down, saying they were an impermissible attempt to make a Judeo-Christian statement to his students.

Johnson sued in federal court. Poway Unified School District officials sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that, as a public employee, Johnson had only limited First Amendment rights while on the job and that the principal had authority over what was put on classroom walls.

In a 23-page decision, U.S. District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez rejected the district's motion as legally faulty and blasted its "brash" attempt to take down the banners.

The jurist noted that the district allowed other teachers to put up posters with Buddhist and Islamic messages, posters of rock bands such as Nirvana and the Clash and Tibetan prayer rugs.

Johnson's banners, Benitez wrote, were patriotic expressions deeply rooted in American history.

"By squelching only Johnson's patriotic expression, the school district does a disservice to the students of Westview High School and the federal and state constitutions do not permit such one-sided censorship," Benitez wrote in a ruling issued last week.

Benitez's ruling allows the case to advance to trial. The district has not decided what its next legal move will be, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Johnson is seeking to restore the banners, and to be compensated for $30,000 in legal fees.

The lawsuit was filed by the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, which supports cases involving religious issues nationwide. The center also is representing a Marine lieutenant colonel facing court-martial at Camp Pendleton near San Diego for allegedly not investigating a possible war crime by troops in Haditha, Iraq.

Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel for the law center, suggested that the Poway district should settle the case rather than advance to trial.

"Many public schools exhibit a knee-jerk hostility toward Christianity," he said.

In his ruling, Benitez noted that Johnson never referred to the banners while teaching.

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