Commentary Forum Center: Court will decide whether Freshwater can teach with holy water
People refer to it as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” but it is officially known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. Basically, this 1925 case charged John Scopes, a Tennessee high school science teacher, with teaching evolution in his classes, which was a violation of the Butler Law that prohibited teaching evolution in Tennessee schools. This famous case pitted two legendary attorneys –William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow– against each other and it ended with Scopes losing and paying a fine. The Butler Law stood for decades afterward, but two legacies remain from the case: evolution as sound science gained traction with the public at large and the issue involving science, evolution and religion in the classroom remains controversial to this day. Ohio has inherited these winds.
John Freshwater was a science teacher in Mount Vernon, Ohio, until the school board decommissioned him in 2011 for using religious materials to teach science in his classes and introducing creationist doctrine in his evolution lessons. Two separate courts heard Freshwater’s case and both sided with the school board. Freshwater recently brought his case before the Ohio Supreme Court and has been aided legally by a Virginia civil liberties organization known as the Rutherford Institute. His defense is that it was not clear which materials or methods were acceptable in his district and his teaching is protected as free speech. The Court heard oral arguments Wednesday, Feb. 27, and a decision is forthcoming.
School board lawyers leveled charges that Freshwater pushed his religious beliefs on students he taught. They charged him with violating the constitutional Separation of Church and State by displaying a Bible in the classroom and handing out religious-based material that challenges current scientific findings. Part of the argument presented by school board lawyers is that a teacher at a state institution surrenders his or her right to free speech when in the classroom. Further, school district administrators ordered Freshwater to cease his religious overtures in class when they caught wind of his activities.
Freshwater’s counsel, however, claimed that the school board “exaggerated” the teacher’s religion-pushing activities in the classroom and showed hostility toward religion. The defense argument went on to state Freshwater used religious materials as an expression of free speech and academic freedom in order to address controversial scientific issues. In further support of the teacher’s methods, his lawyer reported his students performed well on standardized tests. As for the Bible, Freshwater’s lawyer says displaying a Bible does not equal religious indoctrination and it mostly laid on his desk among other books.
John Freshwater’s case is not the first of its kind to surface in Ohio. In 2002, the Ohio State School Board sought to have intelligent design approved as appropriate subject matter. Then in 2011, representatives from the Springboro School District attempted to get creationism in the curriculum. Outside influences stalled efforts to move forward in both cases. Freshwater and his supporters have reason to be hopeful, though, because all of those present at the Court’s oral hearing believe that the justices’ questions helped the teacher’s cause. The verdict, though, may be some months away.
Commentary Forum Question of the Week:
Should the decision of two lower Ohio courts, two years ago, supporting John Freshwater’s termination for “injecting his religious views” into his science classes, still stand? Should the First Amendment protect a teacher who includes his or her religious views along with the state-prescribed curriculum, or does it violate separation of church and state?
Commentary Forum Left: Teaching DEVO-lution in the classroom
By Marianne Stanley
We have, as human beings, such a great ability to complicate the simple and to oversimplify the complicated. In the case of firing a science teacher in the Mount Vernon School District, we have done the former. This case is really very simple.
Contrary to popular Tea Party or Far Right talking points, we are not a “Christian Nation” whose founding fathers supported Christianity. The whole point of leaving the advanced civilizations of Europe for our shores was to escape any kind of religiosity in the culture. This is the reason our Constitution expressly forbids any “establishment of religion” in our oft-cited First Amendment. Separation of Church and State is an imperative here, as emphasized and re-emphasized by Congress and the Supreme Court for the past 250-plus years.
According to hearing records, Freshwater:
1) Branded an eighth-grade student’s arm with a cross running almost the entire length of his inner forearm, using a science tool, the Tesla coil.
2) Refused to teach evolution as fact as required by the official school science curriculum, calling it a discredited theory.
3) Preached Creationism and Intelligent Design, using a brochure called “Answers in Genesis” and a pro-Creationism movie, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” to teach his students that science is wrong, not only about evolution but also that homosexuality is a sin, making every gay person a sinner.
4) Encouraging prayer, keeping his Bible on his desk and making statements like “Catholics aren’t Christians.”
While people who share strong fundamentalist Christian beliefs probably applaud John Freshwater as a courageous teacher who is simply “telling it like it is,” they would just as likely respond with explosive anger if Freshwater were a Muslim who kept the Koran on his desk and burned a Muslim symbol onto a student’s arm.
In other words, oftentimes, in order to get an unmuddled, very clear perspective on an issue, we need change only some of the details. Switch it out. Turn it around. It is in this broadening of view that we can test whether our oftentimes quite powerful feelings about issues are based on fact or simply on strongly held personal beliefs. Our beliefs, after all, are quite sacred to each of us. We hold onto them for dear life, fearing that if we let them go we will be lost, rudderless, without identity or direction. It is understandable that people fight so much about religion and politics. We fight hardest when we are most afraid. None of us wants to be left naked and alone without the strong identity we have so carefully fostered and grown for ourselves.
But the trick is to be aware of this phenomenon and to respect the fact that each and every “other” also has that need, that fear and that right to be free from having beliefs foisted on us or shoved down our throats. Nowhere is this more vital than in the classroom where teachers are hopefully there to “educate,” a Latin word meaning “to lead out of darkness.” Thus, personal religious beliefs are to be kept far removed from a public school classroom.
The Far Right, over the past decade, has been fairly effective in casting doubt on fact and attacking the validity of science, knowing that an uneducated public is the perfect fertile ground for planting and growing propaganda. We have seen this in everything from the often tragically pooh-poohed science on Climate Change to the imbecilic insistence that it is scientific fact that women’s bodies “shut down” rape when it happens so they can’t become pregnant.
John Freshwater’s right of “free speech” in the realm of his religious beliefs ends at the door of his public school classroom. He signed on to teach science, not religion, and he clearly violated the terms of his contract when he continued to refuse the school directives to stop substituting his own religious beliefs for the science curriculum year after year. The real problem isn’t that he was fired for this untenable behavior, but that it took them far too many years to do it.
Marianne Stanley is an attorney, college professor and former journalist who believes many of our nation’s ills could be cured if our children were taught critical thinking skills beginning at the elementary level and continuing through middle and high school. She can be reached at MarianneStanley@DaytonCityPaper.com.
Commentary Forum Right: Teacher’s firing not about his rights
By Rob Scott
Many constitutional scholars, education officials and religious leaders are looking to the Ohio Supreme Court regarding a possible landmark case decision dealing with the doctrine of Separation of Church and State.
The Founding Fathers had several different viewpoints regarding how religion and government should interact. The overarching concern was to not have a national religion due to the diverse religions present in the colonies. The Founders keenly looked to the history of the world regarding interaction of religion and government, realizing the possible issues. They did not want to take religious beliefs out of society; rather they opted to protect each entity from one another as much as possible. However, many aspects of the U.S. government were – and still are – founded in religion.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the treatment of religion by our government is broken into two clauses in the First Amendment: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment Clause has generally been interpreted to prohibit the establishment of a national religion by Congress or the preference by the U.S. government of one religion over another. This applies to all government actors, including all states under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The issue of law the seven Ohio justices may have to answer is whether the firing of eighth-grade public school science teacher John Freshwater for presenting religious doctrine in his science class violated the teacher’s free speech and freedom of religion under the First Amendment.
However, in order to understand the legal issue, the reverse has to be asked. Did John Freshwater, an eighth-grade public school science teacher, violate the Establishment Clause by teaching creationism in his classroom? Or, if you violated a workplace rule several times, would you lose your job?
The resounding answer is “yes,” you would lose your job and “no,” the school did not violate Freshwater’s rights by terminating him. First, Freshwater was acting as a public employee and his actions teaching creationism violated the Establishment Clause. Freshwater claims the school district violated his First Amendment rights and he had academic freedom to teach. The school district disagrees and counters, saying the Establishment Clause forbids government to endorse religion. The school had a duty not to violate the law.
According to the Mount Vernon school district, Freshwater’s speech was made pursuant to his duties as an employee for the school and the school had to ensure their employee did not violate the law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Garcetti that public employees have no free speech rights when they speak pursuant to their official duties. The Sixth Circuit ruled when teachers go to work, they act not as individuals, but rather as government employees.
In Freshwater’s case, he repeatedly taught religion in his classroom by invoking creationism and taught what he considered “gaps” in the curriculum. He filled the gaps by referring students to specific websites, providing handouts and Bibles in the classroom.
Second, Freshwater’s teaching methods were against the school’s policy and applicable academic content standards. Freshwater’s employer, the Mount Vernon school district, had specific policies regarding their curriculum and the teaching of controversial issues. Like with all jobs, if an employee does not follow the rules of their employment, eventually the employee loses their job. Being a public school teacher is no different. John Freshwater knew the rules and was warned several times not to continue his conduct in the classroom. Ultimately, he continued the conduct he believed in and was terminated for it.
As a Christian and a product of public schools, I personally would not have an issue with Freshwater’s approach. However, as someone who believes in the rule of law and the free markets, Freshwater’s actions cannot be condoned for many reasons. The simple answer in this case is Freshwater broke the rules and thus deserved to lose his job.
Rob Scott is a practicing attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is the Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party and the founder of the Dayton Tea Party. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.gemcitylaw.com.