On April 30, 2007, a high school math teacher employed by the Poway Unified School District filed this suit against the school district in the Southern District of California. The plaintiff claimed that the school district had violated his First Amendment rights by requiring him to take down banners in his classroom containing quotations from prominent American political documents mentioning a Judeo-Christian god. The plaintiff claimed injury under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Article I § 2 of the California Constitution, the No Preference Clause of the California Constitution, and the Establishment Clause of the California Constitution. The plaintiff sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as nominal damages. The plaintiff was represented by a non-profit law center devoted to Christian interests and the defendants were represented by private counsel.
The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6), and 12(f). On September 4, 2008, the Southern District of California (Judge Roger T. Benitez) issued an order denying defendants' motion to dismiss.
On August 14, 2009, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. On February 25, 2010, Judge Benitez issued an opinion granting plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and denying defendants' motion for summary judgment. The Court found that the plaintiff's classroom walls constituted a limited public forum for faculty speech and that the plaintiff's speech was squelched because of his Judeo-Christian viewpoint. Furthermore, the Court found that by removing the plaintiff's classroom banners because they conveyed a Judeo-Christian viewpoint, while at the same time permitting displays by other teachers of Buddhist and Hindu religious symbols (such as Tibetan prayer flags and a poster of Mahatma Gandhi's "seven social sins"), the defendants had violated the Establishment Clause in using the weight of government to prefer one religion and express hostility over another religion.
The defendants then appealed Judge Benitez's grant of summary judgment to the Ninth Circuit. On September 13, 2011, the Ninth Circuit, in an opinion written by Justice Richard C. Tallman, reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment and remanded with instructions to enter summary judgment in favor of Poway Unified School District. The Court found that when the plaintiff performs his duties as a high school math teacher, he speaks not as an individual, but as a public employee, and the school district is free to control the message he imparts to his students.
The Ninth Circuit also struck down the plaintiff's claim that the school district had violated his rights under the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses by demanding that he take down his banners while allowing other teachers to display religious symbols in their classrooms. The Court concluded that though these other symbols contained religious content, they did not have the purpose of endorsing a particular religion or stigmatizing those who did not follow this religion. As such, the school district's action in allowing the display of other religious symbols did not have the effect of favoring a certain religion in contravention of the Establishment Clause. On the plaintiff's Equal Protection claim, the Court held that because the plaintiff had no individual right to speak for the government, he could not have suffered an equal protection violation in being forced to take down his banners from government property.David Priddy - 09/28/2011