Nov 19, 2013

The Ohio Supreme Court correctly ruled that a school district was right to fire a teacher for insubordination after he refused to stop teaching creationism and remove certain religious symbols from his classroom, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a 4-3 decision issued today, the Ohio high court said Mt. Vernon City School District had the right to fire eighth-grade science teacher John Freshwater because the First Amendment does not permit him to ignore orders from his bosses or display whatever religious items he pleases in his classroom.

“Public schools are for teaching, not preaching,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Freshwater not only violated that principle, he openly defied the orders of his superiors. That’s not what freedom of religion is about.”

In the lead opinion in Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote: “Freshwater not only ignored the school district’s directive, he defied it. After he was directed to remove the items, Freshwater deliberately added to them, incorporating the Oxford Bible and Jesus of Nazareth into the classroom.”

Continued O’Connor, “Freshwater’s First Amendment rights did not protect the display of these items, because they were not a part of his exercise of his religion. Freshwater’s willful disobedience of these direct orders demonstrates blatant insubordination. That insubordination is established by clear and convincing evidence, and the record fully supports the board’s decision to terminate him on these grounds.”

Freshwater distributed creationist material in class, which he always collected and refused to let students take home. He also 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 was issued in favor of the student and his family, and they received a financial settlement.

Two lower courts had already sided with the school board on the question of Freshwater’s firing, but the Ohio Supreme Court decided to review the matter. AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the Ohio high court in 2012, urging it to uphold Freshwater’s dismissal.

Although Americans United supports the overall conclusion in this case, it expressed dismay with the dissenting judges’ opinion that teaching creationism is somehow a legitimate part of academic freedom.

“It is shocking that any judge would conclude teaching creationism is part of ‘academic debate’ in 2013,” Lynn said. “The U.S. Supreme Court ruled long ago that creationism is a sectarian idea that does not belong in public schools, and I am alarmed that jurists would buy into the bogus claims of creationism proponents.”