COLUMBUS, OH — The Supreme Court of Ohio has upheld the firing of a teacher for refusing to remove Christian symbols from the classroom, while also ruling that the teacher had a right to place his personal Bible on his desk.
As previously reported, John Freshwater, a science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School, had approached school officials in 2003 to request that he be allowed to explain to students the various disagreements that exist regarding the theory of evolution. When he was forbidden from doing so, he ignored their admonishment and began to present the principles of Intelligent Design anyway.
In 2008, Freshwater came under scrutiny for incorporating Christianity into the classroom environment, and officials ordered him to remove all religious items from his room, which included a poster of the Ten Commandments, as well as other displays that contained passages from Scripture. He was also told that the Christian materials that he had been using to refute evolutionary theory were concerning. Freshwater agreed to take down the majority of the items, but insisted that the Bible that he kept on His desk had to stay.
Following the incident, supportive students decided to rally behind Freshwater by wearing Christian t-shirts to school and carrying Bibles to class.
However, the Mount Vernon School Board decided to suspend the science teacher for not completely abiding by the order and for using his religious beliefs to influence students on matters relating to the origin of life. In January 2011, he was officially fired. Freshwater had served at the school for 20 of the 24 years of his teaching career.
He appealed the termination to the Knox County Court of Common Pleas, but the presiding judge sided with the school district. The Fifth District Court of Appeals also declined to overturn the decision. The case then went to the Ohio Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, the court upheld Freshwater’s firing 4-3. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote the opinion on behalf of the panel, stating that the teacher had violated the Constitution by refusing to remove from the classroom wall a poster of former President George W. Bush and Colin Powell in prayer, which he obtained from the school office. She said Freshwater also added to the display after being told to remove the items by bringing in an Oxford Bible and the book Jesus of Nazareth, which he had borrowed from the school library.
“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,” O’Connor wrote. “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.”
Conversely, O’Connor said that the school district acted inappropriately for demanding that Freshwater remove his personal Bible from his desk. She drew a line between the promotion of religion in the classroom and the possession of personal belongings that reflect one’s faith.
“When the district asked Freshwater to remove his Bible from his desk, it was not asking him to cease a meaningless activity,” she wrote. “It was demanding that he give up his constitutionally guaranteed rights.”
O’Connor avoided discussing Freshwater’s teaching on Intelligent Design, which was believed to also be a factor in his termination. However, other justices who dissented in the ruling focused more on Freshwater’s teaching methods in the class and praised him for his quality as a teacher.
“[O]nly Freshwater exceeded the state goal of 75 percent of his students passing the science portion of the Ohio Achievement Test,” wrote Justice Terrance O’Donnell. “Even more striking is the fact that 89 percent of his students passed the life science section, which assessed, among other topics, students’ knowledge of evolutionary theory.”
“In a case bounding with arrogance and cowardice, the lead opinion fits right in,” added Justice Paul Pfiefer. “Five years of hearings and appeals have passed, [and] over $900,000 in legal fees reportedly were expended by the school board on the hearing alone in its quest to fire its best eighth-grade science teacher…”
The Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, which represented Freshwater in court, says that it will file a motion to ask the court to reconsider its decision.
“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 President John W. Whitehead. “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.”