A 4-3 ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court won’t restore the job of former Mount Vernon science teacher John Freshwater, who was fired in 2011 after a student complained the teacher used a device called a Tesla coil to make a mark on his arm in the shape of a cross.
But the ruling may be a disappointment to some because of what it didn’t say.
Freshwater, who taught eighth grade was known to be religious. His personal Bible sat on his desk and the Ten Commandments were on the wall in his classroom along with various other religious-themed posters.
Officials from the Mount Vernon City Schools told Freshwater those items couldn’t be displayed in a public school classroom and that he should remove them. His lawyer, Rita Dunaway, told the Ohio Supreme Court in February that he did that – though he says he wasn’t sure about it.
“There was discrepancy about what a religious display and what had to go and what could stay. But John Freshwater worked diligently to understand the order and did his best to comply with it,” Dunaway said.
The attorney for the school district disagrees. David Smith told Justice Paul Pfeifer that Freshwater took down some items, but didn’t take down a poster that featured a Biblical verse. And he said more religious-themed items turned up.
This was the dialogue in court:
Smith: “He brought in from the library another Bible.”
Pfeifer: “And that’s just cause for firing – because you brought two books out of the library and left them on the lab table?”
Smith: “Insubordination was one of the grounds upon which he was terminated.”
But Dunaway said the Bible and the other items aren’t the real reason Freshwater was fired. She said Freshwater wasn’t teaching creationism or intelligent design, but was offering evidence to his students both for and against evolution. And she said that brings the First Amendment into this case.
“That manifests a very clear hostility toward religion to say that any idea that’s even coincidentally related to a religious idea violates the Establishment Clause in school, and there are Supreme Court cases that reject that.”
And Smith seemed to agree that there was an issue of religion at play here – but said that Freshwater is paid by the public school system to teach the curriculum that’s been approved. He brought up a report from a referee who reviewed Freshwater’s case for the Mount Vernon school board.
The referee found that Freshwater injected his personal religious beliefs into the classroom by holding up the Bible and announcing that this was his truth, it had been around for thousands of years and how could one doubt it.
The court ruled 4-3 that the school district infringed on Freshwater’s First Amendment rights by ordering him to remove his personal Bible but agreed that he was insubordinate in not bringing in the religious books from the library and not removing the poster.
But the majority said since the school board was correct in firing him for insubordination, there was no need to rule on whether Freshwater was unconstitutionally teaching his religious beliefs.
However, Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote in the dissenting opinion that he felt Freshwater was singled out “because of his willingness to challenge students in his science classes to think critically about evolutionary theory”.
And Justice Pfeifer wrote in his dissent that he thought the court had accepted the case to look into important issues of academic freedom and religion in schools.
“Instead this court sidesteps all of the difficult issues presented in the case,” he wrote.