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Ohio court upholds firing of science teacher with classroom Bible

November 20, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • John Freshwater at the Ohio Supreme Court in Columbus before a hearing in February. On Tuesday, the court ruled that the Mount Vernon school board was justified in firing the science teacher, who refused to remove classroom displays of religious materials.
John Freshwater at the Ohio Supreme Court in Columbus before a hearing in… (Tom Dodge / Columbus Dispatch )

The numbers said that John Freshwater was the best eighth-grade science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School.

His students often outperformed those taught by the school's two other science teachers, and Freshwater's evaluations were almost always positive in the 20-plus years he'd been at the school.

On Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the Mount Vernon school board was right to fire Freshwater in 2011 in a disagreement over how he expressed his Christianity.

In a controversial case that has touched on the divide between free speech and the separation of church and state, Ohio's highest court ruled that Mount Vernon officials were right in firing Freshwater for insubordination for refusing to remove Christian materials from his classroom.

"Freshwater's 1st Amendment rights did not protect the display of these items, because they were not a part of his exercise of his religion," the court said in a 4-3 decision.

The ruling added another legal chapter to an already voluminous legal struggle between Freshwater and the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education. It all began in 2007 when a student and his parents complained that Freshwater used a Tesla coil in class to make a mark on the student’s arm.

Freshwater said the mark was an X. The boy's parents said the mark was a cross. The student's parents filed suit against the school, and a media bonanza got underway.

Allegations were raised over Christian-tinted teaching by Freshwater, including classroom videos on creationism and intelligent design and the dispensing of religious handouts to students.

After testimony from more than 80 witnesses, which officials said generated more than 6,000 pages of transcript over almost two years, the school board formally ended Freshwater's contract in 2011, citing his teaching that was skeptical of evolution and his refusal to remove religious materials from his classroom.

On request, Freshwater had removed many religious materials from his classroom but refused to remove the personal Bible he kept on his desk.

He also kept in the classroom a book on Christianity and an Oxford Bible he'd checked out from the school library, as well as a poster that the district itself had distributed to teachers, which featured former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell in prayer, with a biblical quote attached.

Freshwater contested his firing in court unsuccessfully, including this latest appeal.

In the majority's decision Tuesday -- which was accompanied by an extraordinary dissent -- the Ohio Supreme Court ducked the responsibility of deciding whether Freshwater could teach creationism in school. It merely affirmed the decision to fire Freshwater.

The judges said the school was wrong to ask him to remove a second, personal Bible from his own desk, citing the 1st Amendment and personal religious expression. But the poster and the two religious books presented "a much simpler issue," the majority ruled in its single decisive paragraph on the firing. "Freshwater admitted that he checked out the additional books only in order to make a point once this controversy began," the court said, calling his refusal to remove them "blatant insubordination."

Freshwater’s attorney, Rita Dunaway, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that she was disappointed with the decision, but didn't comment further.

The court's majority opinion was accompanied by a fiery, incredulous, and sarcasm-laced dissent from Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who spared no disdain in blasting the majority's logic, the Mount Vernon school board and the complaining student's parents.

"In a case bounding with arrogance and cowardice, the lead opinion fits right in," Pfeifer wrote, arguing that the centerpiece of Freshwater's argument with the school district had been over the Bible on his desk, not the "piddling other claims of supposed insubordination" involving the library books and the poster.

"Teachers throughout the state should feel much less secure in their employment today," Pfeifer wrote, arguing that the court had created a dangerous precedent by setting "a very low bar" for districts across the state in firing a teacher for insubordination.

Pfeifer then attacked almost every component of the case against Freshwater.

On the poster in Freshwater's classroom: "The poster was distributed by the school and was displayed in other teachers' rooms.... There is no evidence that Freshwater left the Powell/Bush poster up because of its religious nature."

On the library books: "There is no documented complaint about the books and no specific order that they be removed."

On the school board: "This case should be a cautionary tale for other school boards, a case study of what not to do.... They have managed to divide a really nice community and cost the school board and/or its insurance providers well over a million dollars to free itself of a very good teacher."

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