God at the head of the class


One of the first lessons schoolchildren learn is that there is a difference between students and teachers. That homely wisdom, combined with a proper reading of the 1st Amendment, has led a federal appeals court to rule that a San Diego-area math teacher can’t hang religious banners in his classroom.

Bradley Johnson, a teacher in the Poway Unified School District, had displayed large banners that he saw as celebrating the religious heritage of America. The messages included “In God We Trust,” “God Bless America” and “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.)

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had to settle several questions, including whether references to God taken out of context from historical documents can constitute a religious message (they can) and whether the classroom is a public forum (it isn’t). But the overriding issue in the case was the distinctive role of the teacher.


In 1969, in a case involving students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court said, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” But the 9th Circuit saw no conflict between that decision and another holding that “when a citizen enters government service, the citizen by necessity must accept certain limitations on his or her freedom.” In displaying his banners, Johnson wasn’t just expressing his own opinion; he was acting as a representative of the school.

The role of religion in public schools is a perennial source of controversy, but two principles have emerged: As an agency of the state, public schools may not engage in prayer or proselytizing; and, within reason, students may express their religious convictions. Thus, although Johnson’s “God” banners were not protected by the 1st Amendment, it’s likely that a student wearing the same quotations on a T-shirt would be. But what goes on at the front of the classroom must be teaching, not preaching.