Oct 04, 2012

An Ohio school district was within its rights to fire a teacher who introduced creationism into his classroom, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told the Ohio Supreme Court.

The case centers on John Freshwater, an eighth-grade science teacher in Mount Vernon. In 2003, Freshwater asked the school board to allow him to teach creationism and “intelligent design.” Board members refused, but Freshwater did it anyway. He was fired in January of 2011.

“Public schools must remain focused on teaching, not preaching,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Freshwater violated that cardinal rule, and the board was right to fire him.”

Added Lynn, “If Freshwater prevails, public schools will have no way to stop teachers from bringing any topic they choose into their lessons plans. The result will be chaos in the classrooms.”

Freshwater handed out creationist material in class, which he always collected and refused to let students take home, and he passed out surveys to students, asking them if religion was important to them.

Freshwater was also accused of using an electronic device (a Tesla coil) to burn a cross into a student’s arm. The boy’s parents complained to school officials, and the matter went to court. A judgment and financial settlement came down in favor of the student and his family.

Two lower courts have already sided with the school board, but the Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to review the matter.

In its brief, AU urged the Ohio high court to uphold Freshwater’s dismissal.

“There is no legal authority of any kind for the suggestion that individual teachers can override or ignore a school district’s set curriculum,” observes AU’s brief. “Nor could there be: Public schools simply could not function on those terms.”

Elsewhere the brief asserts, “Although Freshwater apparently believes himself to have been acting in the service of Christianity, his actions disserved both religion and science education by placing matters of faith in competition with science in the classroom. Science instruction need not compete with theology, unless the teacher sets them at odds with one another – which is just what Freshwater did.”

The brief in the Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education case was drafted for Americans United by attorneys Richard B. Katskee, Charles P. Hurley and Scott M. Noveck of the Washington. D.C., law firm Mayer Brown LLP, with assistance from Ayesha Khan, AU’s Legal Director, and David Barkey of the Anti-Defamation League.

Katskee, former assistant legal director for Americans United, was a principal member of the legal team that successfully challenged the teaching of intelligent design creationism in the public schools of Dover, Pa., in 2005.