COLUMBUS, Ohio—In a mixed ruling that affirms the First Amendment right of a public school teacher to keep a personal Bible on his desk, while sidestepping larger questions of academic freedom, the Ohio Supreme Court has upheld a school district’s decision to terminate a middle school science teacher who encouraged students to think critically about the school’s science curriculum, particularly as it relates to evolution theories, on the grounds that there was sufficient evidence to support the school’s charge of “insubordination” against the teacher.
The 4-3 decision in Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. Of Edn. upheld the termination of John Freshwater, a Christian with a 20-year teaching career at Mount Vernon Middle School, despite a vocal dissent defending Freshwater’s right to academic freedom and insisting that his teaching methods are protected by the Constitution. The majority based their ruling of insubordination on the fact that Freshwater failed to remove from his classroom a poster depicting George Bush and Colin Powell, which he got from the school’s office and an Oxford Bible, and a book titled Jesus of Nazareth, both of which he checked out from the school library.
In coming to Freshwater’s defense after he was discharged in January 2011, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued that where a teacher’s speech is in compliance with all Board policies and directly relates to the prescribed curriculum, the school should not be permitted to terminate the teacher’s employment as a means of censoring a particular academic viewpoint from the classroom. Institute attorneys plan to file a motion to ask the Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider their opinion in order to focus on the constitutional issues at the heart of the case, particularly as they relate to academic freedom in the classroom.
“School officials should stop talking about the need for young people to learn about the Constitution and start putting those principles into practice by creating a robust environment in the classroom where free speech can flourish and thrive,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “It’s our hope that the Ohio Supreme Court will send a strong message to the nation’s schools that the First Amendment protects both teachers and students, no matter how controversial or politically incorrect the topic under discussion.”
In June 2008, the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education voted to suspend John Freshwater, a Christian with a 20-year teaching career at Mount Vernon Middle School, citing concerns about his conduct and teaching materials, particularly as they related to the teaching of evolution. Earlier that year, school officials reportedly ordered Freshwater to remove “all religious items” from his classroom, including a Ten Commandments poster displayed on the door of his classroom, a patriotic poster of Bush and Powell with a Bible verse, and his personal Bible which he kept on his desk. Nevertheless, school officials suspended and eventually fired Freshwater, allegedly for criticizing evolution and using unapproved materials to facilitate classroom discussion of origins of life theories.
A Common Pleas judge upheld the School Board’s decision, as did the Fifth District Court of Appeals, without analyzing Freshwater’s constitutional claims to academic freedom. Likewise, the Ohio Supreme Court sidestepped the question as to whether Freshwater has a First Amendment right to include materials critical of evolution in his class. However, the Court did rule that Freshwater was not insubordinate for failing to remove his personal Bible from his desk because he was entitled to keep the Bible under the First Amendment’s guarantee to free exercise of religion. Affiliate attorney Rita Dunaway is assisting The Rutherford Institute with Freshwater’s defense.