MOUNT VERNON, Ohio—Attorneys for the Mount Vernon City School District have asked the Ohio Supreme Court to strike portions of public school teacher John Freshwater’s appeal briefing, including the text of the First Amendment. This technical motion is the School Board’s latest effort to counter an argument by Rutherford Institute attorneys that the School District violated Freshwater’s academic freedom rights by firing him for encouraging students to think critically about the school’s science curriculum, particularly as it relates to evolution theories. The Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to The Rutherford Institute’s request to hear the case, which arose after the Mount Vernon City School District’s Board of Education suspended Freshwater, a 24-year veteran in the classroom, in 2008 and officially terminated him in January 2011.
“It’s a sad day when public school officials want to eliminate the First Amendment from a discussion about classroom education and academic freedom,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “It’s time that school officials stop paying lip service to the need for young people to learn about the Constitution and start putting those principles into practice.”
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, who had served as the faculty appointed facilitator, monitor, and supervisor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes student group for 16 of the 20 years that he taught at Mount Vernon, to remove “all religious items” from his classroom, including a Ten Commandments poster displayed on the door of his classroom, posters with Bible verses, and his personal Bible which he kept on his desk. Freshwater agreed to remove all items except for his Bible. Showing their support for Freshwater, students even organized a rally in his honor. They also wore t-shirts with crosses painted on them to school and carried Bibles to class. School officials were seemingly unswayed by the outpouring of support for Freshwater. In fact, despite the fact that the Board’s own policy states that because religious traditions vary in their treatment of science, teachers should give unbiased instruction so that students may evaluate it “in accordance with their own religious tenets,” school officials suspended and eventually fired Freshwater, allegedly for criticizing evolution and using unapproved materials to facilitate classroom discussion of origins of life theories. Freshwater appealed the termination in state court, asserting that the school’s actions violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and constituted hostility toward religion. A Common Pleas judge upheld the School Board’s decision, as did the Fifth District Court of Appeals, without analyzing these constitutional claims. In appealing to the Ohio Supreme Court, Institute attorneys argued that the Board through its actions violated the First Amendment academic freedom rights of both Freshwater and his students.