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Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Dismissal of Science Teacher

By Mark Walsh — November 20, 2013 3 min read

The Ohio Supreme Court has upheld the termination of an 8th grade science teacher for refusing to remove religious displays from his classroom and continuing to inject his personal religious views in instruction after being told by his supervisors not to do so.

The state’s highest court on Nov. 19 upheld the Mount Vernon City School District’s dismissal of John Freshwater. The court’s decision came after the district’s board of education voted in 2008 to fire the teacher on four grounds: an incident in which Freshwater shocked a student with low-level electrical currents through a “Tesla” coil; his failure to adhere to the established curriculum; issues with his role as supervisor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes; and disobedience of orders.

Freshwater sought a hearing before a state referee, who heard testimony from more than 80 witnesses in 38 days over 21 months. The referee sustained the termination on two of the grounds: failure to adhere to the curriculum, and disobedience of orders.

In its 4-3 decision in Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, the state supreme court upheld the termination solely on the disobedience charge.

Because there was “ample evidence of insubordination to justify the termination decision,” the court said it “need not reach the constitutional issue of whether Freshwater impermissibly imposed his religious beliefs in his classroom.”

Freshwater had argued that the district violated his First Amendment free speech rights based on the content or viewpoint of his curriculum-related materials with his students and his use of supplemental materials. Court papers show that Freshwater gave religious handouts to his students, showed videos on creationism and “intelligent design,” displayed religious materials in his classroom, and referenced the Bible.

Administrators repeated advised Freshwater not to display religious materials and have particular religious discussions in class.

“Freshwater not only ignored the school district’s directive, he defied it,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said. “After he was directed to remove the items, Freshwater deliberately added to them, incorporating the Oxford Bible and Jesus of Nazareth into the classroom. He then refused to remove his personal Bible from his desk, and refused to remove a depiction of former President George W. Bush and Colin Powell and others in prayer from his wall.”

O’Connor said the court recognized “that this case is driven by a far more powerful debate over the teaching of creationism and intelligent design alongside evolution.”

“The United States Supreme Court and at least one other federal court have held that teaching theories of creationism and intelligent design in public schools violates the Establishment Clause because they convey ‘supernatural causation of the natural world’ and therefore are inherently religious concepts,” the state supreme court said, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard and the famous 2005 federal district court ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.

But the U.S. Supreme Court also held in Aguillard that teaching creationism is not prohibited in public schools as long as it is done “with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction,” the Ohio high court noted.

“Here, we need not decide whether Freshwater acted with a permissible or impermissible intent because we hold that he was insubordinate, and his termination can be justified on that basis alone,” the state supreme court said. “Freshwater is fully entitled to an ardent faith in Jesus Christ and to interpret Biblical passages according to his faith. But he was not entitled to ignore direct, lawful edicts of his superiors while in the workplace.”

Writing for the dissenters, Justice Terrence O’Donnell said the case was not one of “simple insubordination” but about “a veteran science teacher singled out” by the school district “because of his willingness to challenge students in his science classes to think critically about evolutionary theory and to permit them to discuss intelligent design and to debate creationism in connection with the presentation of the prescribed curriculum on evolution.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

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