God in the classroom

Two news stories relating to religion encroaching on public education came to my attention today courtesy of the Friendly Atheist.

The first involves an industrial arts at Guthrie Center High School in Guthrie Center, Iowa whose love of Jesus led to him denying  a student the right to make “a Wiccan alter.” The project simply called for students to build something from scratch.

Now initially I thought maybe this was acceptable on the same grounds that it be deemed “inappropriate” in school, a defense often used to justify censoring material in public school literary magazines, for instance. And I could see letting the whole thing slide on those grounds.

Unfortunately though the teacher, Dale Halferty, changed my mind by saying too much:

Halferty said he thought about it, and decided allowing the student to make the altar “was wrong on every level.”

“It scares me. I’m a Christian,” he said. “This witchcraft stuff — it’s terrible for our kids. It takes kids away from what they know, and leads them to a dark and violent life. We spend millions of tax dollars trying to save kids from that.”

So by his own admission, this is not about appropriateness but rather it’s all about Jesus. And you know, if the guy had only shut up about his his prejudices, nobody would have questioned the decision and this would not have stirred the kind of controversy that it did.

Halferty said he previously told another student he could not build a cross in shop class because he believes in the separation of church and state. “I don’t want any religious symbols in the shop,” he said.

His viewpoint: “We as Christians don’t get to have our say during school time, so why should he?”

No, no, no. It’s THE SCHOOL and the school employees that are constitutionally prevented from promoting religion, not the students, whose free speech is protected by the Establishment Clause. Of course there’s plenty of legal precedence supporting a public school’s right to regulate student expression on school time and on the school’s property.

Now the other story where religion invaded the classroom is more overtly criminal. Bradley Johnson, a math teacher at Westview High School in the Poway Unified School District in California hung numerous large banners in his classroom that explicitly promote his Christianity:

The banners are about 7 feet wide and 2 feet tall. One has the phrases “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America” and “God Sheds His Grace On thee.”

A second reads “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator,” with the last word in uppercase letters.

Yeah, there’s just no excuse for this sort of nonsense. This is not even close to acceptable behavior for a public school teacher.

Now you’d think this is the sort of thing that would get the guy fired but no. He was sued though. Unfortunately, despite such a clear violation of the law, Johnson won:

Judge Roger Benitez said teacher Bradley Johnson is entitled to a declaration that his First Amendment rights were violated by the Poway Unified School District.

He also said in a ruling Friday that Johnson should get damages of $10 ?from each of nine officials he named in a lawsuit filed in 2007.

Benitez also ordered the district to allow Johnson to rehang the banners in his classroom.

If I were among the plaintiffs I’d appeal on the grounds that this is a gross Mistake of Law as the judge completely mishandled this case. While I don’t know all the facts, this seemed about as much of an airtight case as one gets and it should not have ruled that way.

Here is the judge’s ruling (PDF).

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