The Ohio Supreme Court will hear arguments today in the case of a science teacher fired for talking openly with students about his Christian faith and theories of intelligent design.
John Freshwater taught at a middle school in Mount Vernon, Ohio, for 20 years before the school board accused him of teaching Christian beliefs in class during discussions of evolution and homosexuality. The board also accused him of insubordination because he refused to remove a Bible from his classroom.
The school board fired Freshwater in 2009. Two lower courts have ruled in the school district’s favor.
But Freshwater’s attorneys, supported by Charlottesville, Va., civil liberties group The Rutherford Institute, argue the school board violated the teacher’s constitutional rights.
“Academic freedom was once the bedrock of American education,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “That is no longer the state of affairs, as this case makes clear. … By firing John Freshwater for challenging his students to think outside the box, school officials violated a core First Amendment freedom—the right to debate and express ideas contrary to established views.”
The state Supreme Court agreed to hear part of Freshwater’s case, allowing him to argue it is unconstitutional to fire someone without clear guidance on what teaching materials or methods are acceptable. His attorneys claim Freshwater’s discussions about intelligent design were part of the school’s secular education program.
“Freshwater did not engage in religious proselytization—he discussed a scientific theory that happens to be consistent with the teachings of multiple major world religions,” attorney Kelly Hamilton wrote in court filings.
Freshwater also plans to argue the U.S. Constitution prevents the school board from firing someone over the mere presence of a religious text, including the Bible, in a classroom.
In June 2008, the school board voted to suspend Freshwater, who also served as the faculty-appointed facilitator, monitor, and supervisor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group on campus. School officials had ordered him to remove “all religious items” from his classroom, including a Ten Commandments poster, posters listing Bible verses and his own personal Bible.
Freshwater agreed to remove everything but the Bible.
Students organized a rally to support Freshwater, wearing T-shirts with crosses painted on them and carrying Bibles to class, according to The Rutherford Institute.
But school board attorneys describe Freshwater was a troublesome employee who refused to follow orders. School officials repeatedly told him not to hand out fliers about religion and science, including one titled “Answers in Genesis” and another titled “Survival of the Fakest.”
The teacher’s goal was to get students to doubt science, the school board’s attorney said in a court filing: “Whenever Freshwater was told by a superior to cease using an inappropriate handout in class, he would simply find another one to use.”