Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Press release: Rutherford Institute asks Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider ruling, focus on academic freedom issue in case of Christian teacher fired over evolution

The following press release was provided by The Rutherford Institute:

COLUMBUS, Ohio— Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a motion in Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. Of Edn. asking the Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider its recent ruling upholding a school district’s decision to terminate a middle school science teacher who encouraged students to think critically about the school’s science curriculum.

On November 19, the Ohio Supreme Court handed down a 4-3 decision in Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. Of Edn. which 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 W. 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 asking the court to reconsider the constitutional issues at play in the case, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that the charge of “insubordination” against Freshwater is specious considering his “good-faith efforts to comply with vague, conflicting, partially illegal administrative directives.”

“This case speaks to an ongoing debate in America over whether we want schools that will teach young people to think analytically, critically and for themselves, or schools that will merely teach young people to parrot back what they are told,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “It’s our hope that the Ohio Supreme Court will agree to reconsider this case and, in so doing, recognize that the future of this nation rests with the schools and their employees and the kind of citizen they churn out—either individuals who understand how to exercise their rights, or ones who view the Constitution as an antiquated relic of a bygone age.”

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.

Related documents

John Freshwater’s motion for reconsideration, November 26, 2013 (PDF)

Minority opinion: Reinstate Freshwater (Justice Terrence O’Donnell, with Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and Sharon L. Kennedy concurring)

Justice Pfeifer: ‘In a case bounding with arrogance and cowardice, the lead opinion fits right in.’ (Justice Paul E. Pfeifer)

Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. of Edn., Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-5000 (PDF)

Previous coverage

Editorial: Ohio Supreme Court decision shirks sworn duties
 
Document dump: School board and cohorts file briefs in Freshwater case

Freshwater responds to school board’s arguments

Student was not burned, according to medical expert

School board votes 4-1 to fire Freshwater

See the articles in the archive for additional coverage of the Freshwater controversy.

Editorial: Ohio Supreme Court decision shirks sworn duties

In a 4-3 vote the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the firing of John Freshwater. Apparently black robes are good for hiding yellow streaks.

Dissenting Justice Paul E. Pfeifer wrote, “In a case bounding with arrogance and cowardice, the lead opinion fits right in.”

It is the sworn duty of the justices to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Ohio. That duty is not fulfilled when the majority justices hide behind superficial excuses to avoid rendering support for rights they don’t like:

 “Courts sometimes don't want to rule on controversial legal questions, especially when doing so might force them to rule in favor of viewpoints they find distasteful, like the rights of teachers to teach scientific critique of evolution. As a result, you see narrow, hair-splitting, fact-intensive rulings like this one which do everything they can to settle the case on other issues, and avoid any explicit finding that it might be legal to critique Darwin.”

—Casey Luskin, “In the Freshwater Case, the Ohio Supreme Court Dodges Ruling on Academic Freedom to Critique Darwinian Evolution” (Evolution News and Views)

Those other issues the court used to settle the case were Freshwater having in his classroom a George W. Bush poster and two religious books from the school’s library.

Not exactly fireable offenses. Unless, of course, you count breaking ad hoc rules that exist only in the imagination of the people making the firing decision.

For the justices to grasp at these items as the basis of their decision shows how desperate they were. They had already recognized that Freshwater’s personal Bible was off limits as a basis for the firing. Now they needed something. Anything. The best they could find was a poster of a president and a couple library books.

And with that the majority opinion claimed to have solved the case: The items in Freshwater’s classroom provided sufficient grounds for firing him. Therefore the court did not need to touch the issue of whether it is legal to critique evolution.

What a relief for them. Had they needed to address the evolution issue they would have run into a sticky problem: Freshwater’s teaching methodology had been authorized by the school’s written policies and guidelines.

(See Policy and Guideline 2240 - Controversial Issues; Policy and Guideline 2270 - Religion in the Curriculum; and Policy 3218 - Academic Freedom of Teachers.)

Of particular relevance is policy 3218 which not only is titled Academic Freedom of Teachers, but also says, “The freedom to speak and share ideas is an inherent precept of a democratic society governed by the will of the majority. Teachers and students need to be free to discuss and debate ideas.”

The four majority justices, and I use that term loosely when applied to them, could have used this case as an opportunity to assure Ohioans that they can count on their courts to have the courage to uphold the law.

Instead, we’re left wondering if a dystopian novel somewhere is missing four characters: Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, Justice Judith L. French and Justice William M. O'Neill.

Related documents

Minority opinion: Reinstate Freshwater (Justice Terrence O’Donnell, with Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and Sharon L. Kennedy concurring)

Justice Pfeifer: ‘In a case bounding with arrogance and cowardice, the lead opinion fits right in.’ (Justice Paul E. Pfeifer)

Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. of Edn., Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-5000 (PDF)

Previous coverage

“Document dump: School board and cohorts file briefs in Freshwater case”

“Freshwater responds to school board’s arguments”

“Student was not burned, according to medical expert”

“School board votes 4-1 to fire Freshwater”

See the articles in the archive for additional coverage of the Freshwater controversy.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Press release: Ohio Supreme Court affirms science teacher’s right to keep personal Bible on desk, sidesteps issue of academic freedom in firing over evolution lessons


The following press release was provided by The Rutherford Institute:

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.

Additional information

Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. of Edn.,  Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-5000 (PDF)

“Supreme Court upholds firing of Freshwater in religious-symbols case”  by Darrel Rowland, The Columbus Dispatch

“Court: Freshwater’s termination valid” by Pamela Schehl, Mount Vernon News

Previous coverage

“Document dump: School board and cohorts file briefs in Freshwater case”

“Freshwater responds to school board’s arguments”

See the articles in the archive for additional coverage of the Freshwater controversy.