This Must Be the Most Uncomfortable Math Class Ever September 11, 2008

This Must Be the Most Uncomfortable Math Class Ever

Take a look at this sign:

I was thinking of hanging that banner in my high school math classroom…

That shouldn’t be any cause for concern, right?

Isn’t it just my freedom of expression?

Of course not.

Even if you agreed with me, you’d say my banner should be taken down and I should be reprimanded. Who am I to force my views upon my students? Students would feel intimidated by me (if they were religious). They would rightfully be concerned that their grades would be affected if they dared to disagree with me.

The banner has no business hanging in any classroom. What does it have to do with math, anyway?!

Conservative Christians would agree, too, I imagine.

But what if I Jesufied my banner?

Could I hang that one up instead?

You would hope the same religious conservatives would be opposed to this banner as well — they might agree with what it says, but even they would say it goes too far, right? If this banner was allowed, imagine what else could go up on the walls!



That’s Brad Johnson, a teacher at Westview High School in San Diego.

Standing in front of his Christianized banner.

… [Johnson] 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.

So Johnson sued. He said he had a First Amendment right to have the banner up.

The school countersued to dismiss the lawsuit.

Guess which way the judge went?

In a blistering 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 including Nirvana and the Clash, and Tibetan prayer rugs.

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

Are you $#!&&ing me?

“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.

So this has nothing to do with religion, according to the judge. It’s about “patriotic expression.”

Sandhya Bathija of Americans United for Separation of Church and State explains the problems with this ruling:

First, Benetiz’s interpretation of free speech is worrisome. The court is wrong to claim that Johnson’s messages on the school’s bulletin boards are his own private speech. If what teachers said and displayed in classrooms during class time were merely private speech, they would be free to talk about their religious beliefs, to teach creationism and to hang Bible versus all over the classroom. Numerous other courts have said teachers don’t have this right and have upheld the ability of school officials to crack down on in-class proselytism.

Second, the school board should have known better. The district has a policy allowing teachers to display personal messages reflecting their social values and political opinions on their classroom bulletin boards. According to the decision, other teachers displayed Buddhist and Islamic messages, as well as Tibetan prayer flags. The district is practically begging for trouble.

Finally, the court said the banner is OK because it is the teacher’s “personal” message, but how are students supposed to know that? Johnson does not own the classroom, so one could be forgiven for thinking that his gigantic red-white-and-blue banner strung across the wall is really the school’s endorsement of religion.

The answer here is to remove all “personal” religious messages from display at the school, be they Christian or non-Christian. Teachers could still use religious symbols and texts when instructing objectively about religion, and they could keep religious material around for personal use during breaks, but nothing like proselytism should be permitted.

If this ruling stands, things will only get more chaotic.

It should be noted the case has not yet gone to trial; however, the school district’s request to reject the lawsuit has been dismissed by the judge.

Maybe I should ask the Thomas More Law Center to defend my right to to keep an atheist banner in the classroom.

Or maybe I should just have the decency to keep my personal beliefs out of the classroom and teach the children the math they came to school to learn.

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  • I don’t know how the school board could have been so stupid as to target just the one religious message. They lost the case before they filed it, even though the Judge used the wrong reasoning, he was accidentally correct. But, I don’t get what Nirvana and the Clash have to do with it.

    As far as I know, Kurt Cobain has not been promoted to sainthood.

  • llewelly

    No matter what the words say, that color scheme qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

  • I strongly agree with Sandhya’s assessment. This teacher may just have increased the size of prominence of his proselytizing, but its essence is the same as the prayer flags.
    I do think that the judge’s comments about patriotism are out of whack and I suspect that , as usual, the Christian establishment will see this as another instance of the judiciary blessing the concept of the USA as a Christian nation. But the question at hand is whether a teacher who promotes a rational thought society should also be banned from similar displays.

    Where does proselytization end and teaching begin?

  • TXatheist

    Maybe another teacher(Hema_t)j/k will put up a banner with wording from an actual US document, the treaty of tripoli with the famous words ” The US is not in ANY sense founded on the xian religion”. That and other famous sayings like The Church and state will forever remain separate. That would look really good in your classroom 🙂

  • I don’t know the exact provenance of the phrase “no gods, no masters” (though I think it originated among French radicals) but I do know its a common anarchist slogan, so I believe it’d be very difficult to find someone who would agree with the views expressed on your flag, Hemant, as that and “one nation indivisible” are, at least in spirit, mutually exclusive.

    But yes, this is absolutely ridiculous. Free speech issues can be difficult to navigate in a school setting, for both teachers and students; I will give them that much. It seems obvious, however, that a classroom billboard is not a pulpit and to use it as such crosses the line.

  • SarahH

    I think that displays of religious material in the classroom is most definitely out of bounds and violates the separation of church and state.

    When I was a substitute teacher, I was dismayed to find that many of the elementary teachers I subbed for had prominent plaques and pictures on their desks of a religious nature – with crosses, Bible verses, etc. where the students could clearly see them from their desks.

    Hemant, you are completely right to stipulate that your fake banner would be just as unconstitutional as the Christian banner in question, and I’d be shocked if you weren’t reprimanded and ordered to take yours down within days. That this teacher has been allowed to keep his up for so many years reinforces the social power the Christian majority has in US thought.

    The few students who passed through his classrooms with non-Christian beliefs probably felt quite uncomfortable facing such a strong endorsement of Christianity by their teacher.

  • PrimeNumbers

    I think you should pick some appropriate historical quotes. Are there any good math ones though that you could put up – they’d surely be appropriate for you?

  • cipher

    I don’t know how the school board could have been so stupid as to target just the one religious message.

    This, in itself, represents a tremendous problem – the gross inadequacy of our educational system. We pay them shit, and end up with morons teaching our kids. I mean, how pathetic is it that they (a majority voting block on the school board, I would imagine) couldn’t see this coming? Not to mention that their lawyer must have known they didn’t have a snowball’s chance, but he took their money anyway. Aren’t lawyers great?

    No matter what the words say, that color scheme qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

    That’s the first thing I thought! It’s too bad there were no Constitutional amendments regarding taste! You’d think some parents would have complained that their kid found it distracting.

    Finally – it’s beyond ironic that we finally get a school board with the ovaries/testicles to stand up to a Christian conservative – and it gets smacked down by a court! In San Diego, yet. As I said, Hemant – it’s everywhere.

    I’ve come to agree with the fundies on one thing – this is a war. There can be no compromise. There can only be winners and losers. Liberals and secularists have got to start fighting back – hard.

  • mikespeir

    I agree that neither should be displayed. During the Dover trial I frequently made the point that if teachers tried to put stickers on science textbooks with something by, say, Stephen Jay Gould claiming that evolution proves there is no God, I would oppose that, too. We don’t need governmental endorsement of religion and we don’t need governmental denial of it.

  • Siamang

    So this has nothing to do with religion, according to the judge. It’s about “patriotic expression.”

    Well, let’s see:

    “In God We Trust”

    Yep, that’s the national motto. It’s on the money.

    “One Nation Under God”

    Yep, it’s the Pledge of Allegiance. Which is taught and recited in school.

    “God Bless America”
    Practically our second Nation Anthem, at least since 9/11.

    “God Shed His Grace On Thee”
    From “America the Beautiful”… another patriotic song.

    Take away all the context of the rest of the sources and yes, all of these things that would be permitted at school take on a quite different flavor.

    This is exactly why Newdow is right, and we need to fight the “in God we Trust” and “under God” things. It’s not just pesky little symbolism. If I were Newdow, I’d show this picture as part of my evidence… this is exactly where these “innocent little bits of ceremonial deism” lead to. A place where different ideas are shouted down, and one view only seems to have the force and power of the State backing it.

    The size of the banner itself is a bit of a “shout down”. Gee, let me take a wild guess, this guy loves Fox News and Limbaugh and Hannity and everywhere else where tough macho pricks shout down anyone who disagrees with them.

    That’s just a guess, of course.

    Oh, and for clarity, Hemant, you should note that the ruling was against the district’s request for summary dismissal of the lawsuit. The suit itself has not gone to trial.

  • Thanks Siamang — I’ll add in the note about the ruling.

  • Roe

    This was the fault of the school board, not the judge. The school board was acting in a discriminatory manner when they asked him to take this sign down but allowed other teachers to display statements of faith in their classrooms.

    The only way a teacher should be allowed to put up religion based material in their classroom is if they are teaching a “world religions” class and they represent the major religions equally. Either way the “right” will use this ruling in an ignorant way to say that schools should be able to display religious messages. So Sad.

  • Kate

    I think the overly large, in your face sign is compensating for small manhood. It’s WAY too big to not be…


  • Polly

    He’s only emblazoned on his wall the same stuff that’s on our money, in the (current) Pledge of Allegiance, and that which is part and parcel of many public speeches by high-level American politicians.

    To be completely even-handed, I would have to admit that those expressions really are more “Americana” than religious…I’m so very sorry to say.

    I think free speech is great, but only when the hearer and the speaker are on equal footing. We censor a lot of what children are exposed to because we recognize they aren’t fully able to independently process information and they’re still susceptible to unmerited influence by adults.

    All the religious and political signs should come down in areas where students can be exposed to them.

    As for patriotism: Fuck it, it’s nationalism-lite and “lite” only sometimes.

    I’m proudly unpatriotic. I do have a desire to see my fellow human beings get a better shake in life – but that is in no way limited to those with social security cards.

    Mindless idiot religiosity goes hand in hand with patriotism, I’ve noticed. The same simplemindedness seems to latch on to both, quite often; not always, but very often.

    Did anyone else see how frequently McCain’s speech was punctuated with chants of “U!S!A!” at seemingly random intervals? Is McCain running against Chinese gymnasts in these bozos’ minds? Or maybe the Brazillian volleyball team.
    Someone should tell them the olympics are over and BOTH sides of THIS competition are from the U!S!A!.

  • Polly


    Crap, this is why I should read the comments before I post. You made my point already.

    I forgot about “My Country tizuvee.”

    heh, YES! Definitely. I wonder what model of Hummer he drives. 🙂

  • Hemant, you could just put pictures of babies around your classroom with recipe ideas. Baby recipes are as much to do with Mathematics as religion is. More actually as you need to weigh and measure ingredients.

  • Siamang

    Roe said:

    This was the fault of the school board, not the judge. The school board was acting in a discriminatory manner when they asked him to take this sign down but allowed other teachers to display statements of faith in their classrooms.

    I’ll agree that the school board should demand all of the messages of faith be taken down. But piecemeal enforcement of the establishment clause is no reason to leave the establishment clause unenforced.

    The harmed individuals (children in the classroom of this proseletizer) cannot be forced to be continued victims because of the past poor actions or inaction of the school board.

  • J Myers

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

    So constitutional violations are now a form of “patriotic expression”? This sort of statement demonstrates a fundamental incompetence that should necessitate the removal of this judge from the bench. There must be mechanisms for doing so–what happens if a judge develops mental illness and is no longer fit to preside over court cases? That seems to be about the situation here.

    It’s too bad there were no Constitutional amendments regarding taste!

    I’ve long been saying that we need to outlaw bad taste. I’ll gladly arbitrate any contested matters.

  • genesis

    “Or maybe I should just have the decency to keep my personal beliefs out of the classroom and teach the children the math they came to school to learn.”

    Good call. The school and the marketplace should be proselytization-free zones. I’m sure if kids have questions about God & country, their math teacher might not be their first choice.

  • Gabriel

    The big problem is that only the wealthy and powerful really value education. They send they children to very well funded private schools with tiny class sizes and excellent resources. The public as a whole doesn’t value education. They oppose taxes to pay for it and send their children to huge warehouses that are underfunded. In Texas the best paid teacher is normally the football coach. Very few teachers even want to be teachers. They hate their jobs, hate the students and are always looking for a way out. I remember a study about beginning freshmen and gradutating seniors. Less than 20 percent of entering freshman listed teaching as a carrer field. That almost doubled for graduating seniors. That many people didn’t suddenly develop a burning desire to teach. That many people came from the ranks of partying frat boys and sororiety girls who were to drunk and lazy to finish a difficult degree plan. And we pay them next to nothing to teach our children. This can’t keep up if we wish to maintain a presence in the world. We are preparing ourselves for second class status in the world and we are doing a really good job of it.

  • Face. Palm.

  • What a coincidence.

    My math teacher also has an array of religious posters displayed at the front of the room.

  • Spurs Fan

    I think there are a lot of uneccesary shots being taken at teachers here. As a former high school teacher and a current teacher union organizer, I can validate some of the complaints: Lack of funding, less and less commitment to public education, etc. But I would disagree that most of us are “morons” or former slacker college students. In actuality, most of us are underpaid, but we’ve worked hard to get here and while our job is very difficult, we understand its importance. Most of us also love our students and would support them in any way that we could.

    Despite my disagreement with Mr. Johnson, I’ll bet he’s a damned good math teacher. I could be wrong, but most educators I know (and I know there are exeptions), bust their ass and do the most important job in the nation. Failed schools and educational policy? Maybe. Terrible teachers? I don’t think so.

    Let’s continue to make the good arguments we’ve been making about this post. This is blatant example of a violation of the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment. But let’s not fall down the McCain trap of somehow blaming teachers (or at least teachers alone) for the failures in U.S. public policy in education, health care,impoverished areas, etc.

  • Gabriel

    I think most of the problems with teachers go back to the fact that they are paid way to little, have to many students, to few resources. But that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of them are terrible. I look back on my years in public school and can not think of a single good teacher. I can’t think of a single good teacher that I have met at my kids school. If we want good teachers we have to pay a lot more, better benefits, better resources, smaller classes.

  • Spurs Fan


    Really? Not a single one? Can you explain your “good teacher” criteria to me?

  • Gabriel

    One who wasn’t openly atagonist toward the students. One who could teach clearly so that you could understand the presentation. One who actually understood the material being presented.

    My science teachers spent part of every week teaching how evolution wasn’t science but creationism was.

    My history teachers were confused by poll taxes and literacy tests and taught us that the KU KLUX KLAN was a fraternal charity organization.

    My literature teacher was pro censorship and would sit in the library with a black marker redacting passages and words in library books that offender her.

    My math teacher was a bully whose teaching methods relied and screaming, belittling and threating the students.

    My shop class teacher was a narrow minded bigot who delighted in racist jokes and once threatned to beat me up. He backed down from the threat when I made it clear I was more than willing to fight him.

    So on and on and on.

    My children’s teacher just don’t seem to care. They want them doped up and will pass them just because that is how it is done.

    No, I didn’t meet a good teacher until college.

  • Polly

    My history teachers were confused by poll taxes and literacy tests and taught us that the KU KLUX KLAN was a fraternal charity organization.

    Holy shit! And I thought MY school sucked.

    I can count, on one shop teacher’s hand, the number of good teachers I had in High school. My cousin, who now teaches at my old HS, updated me about the one, good English teacher I had. He had a mental breakdown. *sigh*

    I really liked my 4th-5th grade teacher. She was awesome.

  • I love your version of the banner but yes, you are correct and neither one should be placed in a classroom.

    This kind of crap is taking its toll on me. It’s one thing to see this when it doesnt affect you but its another when you realize your first born child will be starting school in a few years and could be subjugated to this.

    I want to punch him in the face. Not only because he is subliminally pushing his views on his classrooms (year after year) but because he is hiding behind “patriotism”.

    There are many ways to show patriotism in a classroom and this is not one of them.

  • Sudo

    I think it’s ironic that both atheists and Christians complain about the public school system. Atheists complain about Christianity being pushed down their throats in schools; Christians complain about atheism and immorality being pushed down their throats.

    Why is there such a move among Christians to home school their children if public schools are overrun with Christian propaganda? I guess it’s true, all politics really is local.

    If the school is allowing Islamic, Buddhist, and other religious displays, they can’t bar Christian displays. It’s this kind of idiotic ruling that makes Christians believe the system is ‘out to get them’ and wants to ban Christianity. In this case it appears they were right, at least as far as the school board was concerned.

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