The Ohio Department of Education already has rescinded a “letter of admonishment” issued to a Christian fired for encouraging students to think critically about the origin of life, and now a legal team is asking the state Supreme Court to restore John Freshwater to his classroom.

Freshwater, who has taught for 24 years, was suspended in 2008 by the Mount Vernon School District in Mount Vernon, Ohio. He formally was dismissed in 2011.

But the Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to a request by the Rutherford Institute to hear his case. Freshwater contends the district violated his academic freedom rights and those of his science curriculum students.

The school board accused Freshwater of improperly injecting religion into the classroom by giving students “reason to doubt the accuracy and/or veracity of scientists, science textbooks and/or science in general.”

The board also claimed that Freshwater failed to remove “all religious articles” from his classroom, including a Bible.

“Academic freedom was once the bedrock of American education. That is no longer the state of affairs, as this case makes clear,” said Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead. “What we need today are more teachers and school administrators who understand that young people don’t need to be indoctrinated. Rather, they need to be taught how to think for themselves.”

The board’s concern over Freshwater’s teaching materials regarding evolution arose from a complaint that as part of a demonstration of a Tesla coil, a cross was burned into a student’s arm.

The alleged mark was presented in the shape of an “x,” or, in the perspective of the accusing family, a cross.

“No one but the reporting family observed the alleged mark, as the family took a picture of the student’s arm instead of taking the child to a physician or showing the arm to any other potentially interested adult,” Rutherford reported.

A short time later, school officials ordered Freshwater to remove “all religious items,” including the Bible on his desk, from the room.

He met their demands to remove everything except his Bible, and students organized a rally in his support, wearing T-shirts displaying crosses and carrying their own Bibles to class.

Freshwater’s termination was appealed on First and 14th Amendment grounds but a panel of judges in the 5th District Court of Appeals affirmed his dismissal without considering the constitutional claims.

Rutherford pointed out that all available evidence demonstrates that Freshwater’s teaching career was conspicuously marked by excellence. On average, his students performed at or above the state requirements, and their state test scores often exceeded the scores of other eighth-grade science students.

Photo released by Mt. Vernon, Ohio, School District as part of its investigation shows a “brand” mark on the arm of a student

A referee found that Freshwater has taught adequately, but by encouraging students to analyze the theories of evolution and creation, he was injecting “his personal religious beliefs” into the instruction.

His actions, contended the referee, violated board policies requiring “unbiased instruction.”

Freshwater’s faults, the board determined, were that he “allowed his students to examine evidence both for and against evolution,” and he “developed a method of allowing students to point out passages in printed materials that could be questioned or debated.”

The board also based its decision on the finding that Freshwater told his students “the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin, so anyone who chooses to be a homosexual is a sinner.” However, there is evidence that the person who made that allegation, Jim Stockdale, was not in the classroom at the time the statement was reported to have been made. Freshwater insists he didn’t make that statement.

The institute’s brief to the state Supreme Court says Freshwater was doing nothing more than what a good teacher should do.

“As an eighth-grade science teacher, Freshwater sought to encourage his students to
differentiate between facts and theories or hypotheses, to question and test theories and hypotheses, and to identify and discuss instances where textbook statements were subject to intellectual and scientific debate. This teaching methodology – fostering critical thinking and the challenging and evaluation of a variety of postulated theories – is particularly appropriate in a science classroom,” the brief states.

“Freshwater cannot fairly be said to have advanced or inhibited ‘any particular religion’ by merely discussing a widely known origins of life theory for purposes of exploring its scientific value as opposed to its religious or anti-religious implications.”

The argument explains the school actually is exercising censorship when it forbids students and teachers to be critical of any ideas contained in classroom curriculum.

“The Supreme Court has demonstrated commitment to the concept of academic freedom since at least as early as 1967, when it held in Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967), that state regulations prohibiting employment of ‘subversive’ teachers violated the First Amendment,” the institute said. “The Court explained: ‘Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. ‘The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.’ The classroom is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ The nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, (rather) than through any kind of authoritative selection.'”

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