Over at last for Freshwater

10.06.2014

On October 6, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States declined (PDF, p. 10), without comment to hear John Freshwater's appeal of the Ohio Supreme Court's decision to uphold his termination as a middle school teacher. The decision brings the long and complicated controversy over Freshwater's inappropriate religious behavior in the classroom — including teaching creationism and misrepresenting evolution as scientifically controversial — to a final conclusion.

The case began in 2008, when a local family accused Freshwater, then a Mount Vernon, Ohio, middle school science teacher, of engaging in inappropriate religious activity and sued Freshwater and the district. Based on the results of an independent investigation, the Mount Vernon City School Board voted to begin proceedings to terminate his employment. After thorough administrative hearings that proceeded over two years and involved more than eighty witnesses, the presiding referee issued his recommendation that the board terminate Freshwater's employment with the district, and the board voted to do so in January 2011. (The family’s lawsuit against Freshwater was settled in the meantime.)

Freshwater challenged his termination in the Knox County Court of Common Pleas in February 2011. When the challenge was unsuccessful, he then appealed the decision to Ohio's Fifth District Court of Appeals in December 2011. NCSE filed a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) with the appellate court, arguing that Freshwater's materials and methods concerning evolution "have no basis in science and serve no pedagogical purpose." In March 2012, the Fifth District Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's rejection of Freshwater's challenge. Freshwater then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court in April 2012, and when his appeal was accepted, NCSE filed a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) again.

In a 4-3 decision issued in November 2013, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld Freshwater's termination. The decision refrained from assessing the constitutionality of Freshwater's teaching of creationism, writing, "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 dissenters, however, in effect endorsed Freshwater's claims on appeal, crediting Freshwater's claim, "I do not teach ID or creationism," discounting the ample evidence in the record to the contrary. In early 2014, Freshwater unsuccessfully asked the court to reconsider its decision.

On April 22, 2014, Freshwater filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, arguing (PDF) that the case should be heard in order to address questions about the extent of the applicability of the First Amendment and academic freedom to teachers while they are at work, as well as "to correct the grievous injustice that Freshwater has suffered." In its brief of opposition, the Mount Vernon City School Board argued (PDF) that, since the Ohio Supreme Court determined that Freshwater's termination was permissible under state law, the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction. The Board also argued in detail against Freshwater's claims about the First Amendment, academic freedom, and the facts of the case.

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 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.