December 2010 Church & State | People & Events

A long-running legal battle over religion in an Ohio public school appears to be drawing to a close.

The case involves a former eighth-grade science teacher named John Freshwater at Mount Vernon Middle School, who was accused of teaching creationism, posting religious signs in his classroom and engaging in other legally dubious activities.

Although Freshwater was known to engage in these activities for years, he didn’t run into problems until he used an electronic device called a Tesla coil to burn a small cross on a student’s arm.

The student, Zachary Dennis, showed the resulting welts on his arm to his parents, who filed a complaint with the school. In the subsequent investigation, more information came to light about Freshwater’s proselytizing activities.

Jenifer Dennis, Zachary’s mother, told Church & State in March that Freshwater had a habit of promoting conservative Christianity in his classroom – and that this was no secret. (See “Mr. Freshwater’s Classroom Crusade,” March 2010 Church & State.)

The Dennis family is Christian, but said they did not consider it part of Freshwater’s job to preach to their son.

“I think that we have a right as parents to teach our children the way we feel best regarding religion,” Dennis remarked. “I don’t think that should be the decision of a school teacher. Religion is important, but it belongs in church, a home or in a religious class. I don’t think any child should feel uncomfortable at school.”

During the controversy, one anonymous Mount Vernon teacher told The New York Times that she routinely had to re-instruct Freshwater’s students about evolution. He had apparently been teaching “intelligent design” since 2003.

Freshwater also surveyed students about their religious beliefs and distributed handouts to students attacking evolution. (Tellingly, he later lied about the surveys and wouldn’t let the students take the anti-evolution handouts home, always collecting them and storing them in the classroom.)

The school launched an investigation of Freshwater, and he demanded a hearing. In the meantime, the Dennis family filed a civil lawsuit against Freshwater. In turn, Freshwater sued the school, claiming his religious freedom rights had been violated.

The Dennis family’s lawsuit now appears to be moving toward resolution. In late October, the Mount Vernon News reported that a settlement might soon win court approval. The matter was headed to a state court for approval as this issue of Church & State went to press.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Dennis family (who moved out of town after the controversy came to light) will receive two payments totaling $450,000, part of which is an annuity for Zachary.

Freshwater had filed suit against the school but earlier dropped that legal action. In August of 2009, the school, as part of an earlier settlement in the case, held a special workshop on church-state separation for teachers and administrators.