Freshwater case in Church & State

Church & State

The Freshwater case is featured in the November 2012 issue of Church & State, the magazine of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In his article, Rob Boston reviews the complicated course of the case, starting in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 2007: "The Dennis family’s problems began one day when their son Zachary, then 13, showed them some marks on his arm. The red burns were in the shape of a cross, and Zachary told his parents that a science teacher named John Freshwater was responsible for them. Freshwater had made the mark with an electronic device called a Tesla coil."

It was discovered that Freshwater engaged in a variety of inappropriate religious activities in the classroom, including not only branding crosses on the arms of his students but also displaying posters with the Ten Commandments and Bible verses and teaching creationism. In 2008, the school board voted to initiate termination proceedings. In 2011, after administrative hearings that proceeded sporadically over two years, the board voted to terminate Freshwater's employment. Freshwater then launched a legal challenge, which reached the Ohio Supreme Court in 2012; the court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case in February 2013.

In his appeal, Freshwater contends that the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education violated his academic freedom and his free speech rights by terminating his employment. Boston notes, "Previous attempts by teachers who oppose evolution to secure an academic freedom right to teach creationism have not fared well in the courts," and quotes NCSE's deputy director Glenn Branch as commenting, "If Freshwater had his way, teachers could present any nonsense they wanted under the shield of 'academic freedom' — and schools would be powerless to stop them from mis-educating their students."

The Dennis family, NCSE, Americans United and the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Humanist Association and the Secular Student Alliance have all submitted friend-of-the-court briefs to the Ohio Supreme Court, supporting the board. Richard Katskee, who helped to litigate Kitzmiller v. Dover and who wrote the Americans United brief, told Church & State, "The creationists are trying to walk right through the front door of the schoolhouse with a bogus ‘academic freedom’ argument," adding, "Say what you will about the creationists, they're creative ... One might say their strategies are evolving."

Jenifer Dennis told Church & State that she is stunned that the case is taking so long to resolve, but added that she considers it a learning experience: "It has taught me that what I once considered a given about individual rights is not in fact such an easy issue. ... I am dumbfounded that individuals still feel the need to inject personal beliefs to a captive audience of minors ... If families do not confront wrongdoings," she added, "they will continue to happen and the rights of all Americans will slowly be stripped away, leaving everyone to have to follow another’s beliefs or ideals."

The same issue of Church & State commented editorially on the issues raised by the Freshwater case, observing, "The attempt to introduce creationism into the public schools is one of the most serious church-state threats young people face." The editorial concluded, "Secondary school teachers who elevate their personal religious beliefs above the core curriculum are doing more than violating the religious liberty rights of students. They are also engaged in a form of educational malpractice. Courts must recognize this and give public schools the tools they need to crack down on instructors who’d rather preach than teach."

Legal documents relevant to Freshwater's termination and the subsequent court case are available on NCSE's website. Extensive blog coverage of the Freshwater saga, including Richard B. Hoppe's day-by-day account of Freshwater's termination hearing, is available at The Panda's Thumb blog; search for "Freshwater". Hoppe also recently contributed "Dover Comes to Ohio" (PDF) — a detailed account from a local observer of the whole fracas, from the precipitating incident to Freshwater's appeal — to Reports of the National Center for Science Education 32:1.