Eye on Education

Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Firing of Mount Vernon Science Teacher Who Wouldn’t Remove Bible From Classroom

Supreme Court in Freshwater Case

Karen Kasler / Ohio Public Radio

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.


  • Ladybug923

    So this teacher was teaching evolution and creationism. Whats wrong with that? There is NO POSITIVE PROOF that evolution is absolutely true. This is just wrong and this man had taught for 20 years at this school. SHAMEFUL!!!

    • jwhitehawke

      You can’t have people with teaching degrees go around educating young people outside of govt mandated Common Core mandates. “Freshwater is paid by the public school system to teach the curriculum that’s been approved.”
      They’re tracking over 400 data points, from parents’ political and religious affiliations to how much money they make, what the child eats, behaviors and attitudes toward sex…everything.

      CC is MORE than schooling. it’s ‘boot camp’ for brainwashing and successive slavery to bow to the elite.

      • E

        What an ignorant statement. First common core does not apply to science. That is state mandated. Second we’re talking about kids thinking more in math and language arts to prepare for future jobs that haven’t been created yet. But you want yo stay in the early 1900′s with your thinkng. Common core measures the ability to think. PLUs these assessments are not common core (that’s the content) theses assessments like PARRC measure a kids growth not what they eat…. Stupid naive statements from fear mongering Neanderthals.

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