Sunday, April 18, 2010

Christian Family Objects to Bible in Classroom

Self-described as Christian, the Dennis family is suing their son’s former teacher for—among other things—having a Bible in the classroom.

Bible on the desk

Up until five months ago, the Dennises attempted to distance themselves from the controversy surrounding the school’s order for John Freshwater to remove his Bible. The Dennis’ lawsuit in 2008 did not make mention of Freshwater’s personal Bible, instead it stated that the teacher “kept several Bibles in his classroom which were not for his personal use.”

April 6, 2010, federal judge Gregory Frost granted the Dennis’ November 16, 2009, request to include Freshwater’s personal Bible in the suit.

The Dennis’ attorney Douglas Mansfield maintains that the family is not opposed to religion. “As I think you know, the Dennises are a religious family,” Mansfield told, “but they believe—as our Constitution provides—that it's not appropriate for a teacher in a public school classroom to impose his or her own religious beliefs onto the students.”

Freshwater’s attorneys challenged Mansfield’s initial attempt to insert Freshwater’s personal Bible into the suit. In explaining why the Bible should be permitted in the suit, Mansfield stated, in a document filed with the court on January 14, 2010:

“Freshwater remains liable for the other Bible on display in his classroom throughout the 2007-2008 school year. […] the Dennises are not foreclosed from raising claims against Freshwater merely because they did not present them in a complaint to the school district. […] Therefore, the Dennises have not waived arguments pertaining to the Bible on Freshwater’s desk, and it remains viable evidence in proving Freshwater’s violations of the Establishment Clause.”

Freshwater testified in an ongoing administrative hearing that he prayed with his family and made what he believes is a constitutional decision to leave the Bible on the desk. Freshwater testified that he did not teach religious beliefs in his classroom.

The Dennises requested summary judgment, but Frost left the matter to a jury to decide.

Box of FCA Bibles

The Dennises also objected to a box of Bibles stored in the back of the classroom. Frost described, in a court document, the circumstances surrounding these Bibles:

“[There was] a box of Bibles in the back corner of the classroom that was stored there for the student group the Fellowship of Christian Athletes […] Freshwater was the faculty advisor of the FCA for approximately 17 years. The box of Bibles were utilized during the FCA meetings.”

Mansfield argued, January 14, that just because Zachary Dennis was a member of FCA that did not mean his parents are prohibited from objecting to the box of Bibles:

“Further, Zach’s participation in FCA does not defeat the Establishment Clause cause of action because Freshwater inappropriately displayed and maintained those Bibles in his classroom outside the times that Zach participated in FCA. Such exposure contradicts Zach’s parents’ constitutional right to provide their child religious teaching.”

Frost wasn’t convinced enough to issue a summary judgment on the matter, “[T]he Court is not sure that a box of Bible’s in the corner of a room with many other boxes of stored items constitutes a ‘display.’”

The matter will be left to a jury to decide.

Ten Commandments

The third Establishment Clause item that the Dennises requested summary judgment on was the Ten Commandments posters that were in Freshwater’s classroom.

Freshwater removed the posters when requested, in writing, to do so by school administration.

Freshwater’s attorneys argued that the poster on the bulletin board was placed there by members of FCA and that the members had school permission to post club related materials. The other posters were book covers used to cover-up an interior window. According to his attorneys, the book covers were provided by school administration for that purpose. The covers also contained inspirational quotes from famous individuals.

Frost left the matter to a jury to decide.

Standing—the right to file a lawsuit

In order to sue, the individuals must have “standing,” that is, they must be personally affected by the matter over which they are suing. West's Encyclopedia of American Law defines “standing” as the following:

“Standing, sometimes referred to as standing to sue, is the name of the federal law doctrine that focuses on whether a prospective plaintiff can show that some personal legal interest has been invaded by the defendant. It is not enough that a person is merely interested as a member of the general public in the resolution of the dispute. The person must have a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy.”

The Dennises state in their lawsuit that they are Christians. The Bibles and Ten Commandments, if seen as religious articles, are from their own religion. In order to have standing, the Dennis’ legal interests have to have been invaded by the presence of these items.

In granting the Dennises standing, Frost stated, “Plaintiffs correctly explain that they possess standing based upon the uncontroverted fact that ZD was exposed to Freshwater’s Bible, the box of Bibles, and the Ten Commandments postings, something he could not avoid, and Plaintiffs claim offense at such exposure.”

The word “offense” or “offended” was not used by the Dennis family in describing their reaction to the above mentioned items. In response to an inquiry from, Mansfield explained, “As I read the Court's opinion, the use of the term ‘offense’ simply relates to the Dennises’ claim that the religious materials in Mr. Freshwater's classroom violated their constitutional rights.”

(Click here to read Mansfield’s full response to questions from

Frost did not address the issue of whether it is possible for Christians to have their constitutional rights violated by the presence of objects from their own religion.

In Washegesic Pub. Sch. (6th Cir. 1994), a case involving the display of a portrait of Jesus Christ in a public school, the court ruled that the portrait had to be removed, stating:

“Christ is central only to Christianity, and his portrait has a proselytizing, affirming effect that some non-believers find deeply offensive. […] It is the rights of these few that the Establishment Clause protects in this case.” (Emphasis added).

Tesla coil and defamation

Other requests for summary judgment went beyond the Establishment Clause issues.

Frost left it to a jury to decide if Zachary was capable of consenting to the Tesla coil experiment. Frost decided that Freshwater gave full disclosure to Zachary regarding Freshwater’s knowledge of any effects of the demonstration and, thus, any consent was not negated by mistake or misrepresentation:

“Freshwater correctly argues, he testified that he had no knowledge that the experiment would cause ZD, or any other student, burning and pain. Further, the evidence before the Court indicates that the Tesla coil experiment was conducted on hundreds of students with no injury. Plaintiffs have failed to bring forth any evidence that would tend to show that Freshwater knew that the Tesla coil experiment could cause the burning and pain to which Plaintiffs refer.”

Freshwater denies that anyone was burned in the classroom demonstration. (See the article, "Tesla Coil Matter Was Officially Resolved January 2008." )

Frost ruled in the Dennis’ favor on Freshwater’s counter claims of defamation:

“Plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to summary judgment on each of these allegedly defamatory statements because (1) many of the statements were not made by Plaintiffs, (2) some of the statements are entitled to an absolute privilege, (3) some of the statements are entitled to a qualified privilege, and (4) Freshwater has introduced no evidence that the remaining statements were made with actual malice, which is required because he is a limited purpose public figure. This Court agrees.”

Related documents

The National Center for Science Education maintains an up-to-date archive of court documents for the case Doe v. Mount Vernon Board of Education et al.

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