Monday, April 11, 2011

Press release: Rutherford Institute defends Christian teacher fired for urging public school students to think critically about evolution

The following press release was provided today by The Rutherford Institute:

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio— The Rutherford Institute is defending a Christian teacher who was allegedly fired for keeping religious articles in his classroom and for using teaching methods that encourage public school students to think critically about the school's science curriculum, particularly as it relates to evolution theories. John Freshwater, a 24-year veteran in the classroom, was suspended by the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education in 2008 and officially terminated in January 2011. The School Board's resolution claims that Freshwater improperly injected 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 claims that he failed to remove "all religious articles" from his classroom, including a Bible.

"The right of public school teachers to academic freedom is the bedrock of American education," stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "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."

Throughout his 21-year teaching career at Mount Vernon Middle School, John Freshwater never received a negative performance evaluation. As one reporter noted, "In his evaluations through the 21 years he's worked for the district, Freshwater has drawn consistent praise for his strong rapport with students, broad knowledge of his subject matter and engaging teaching style." In fact, during the 2007-2008 school year, Freshwater's students earned the highest state standardized test scores in science of any eighth grade class in the district. Moreover, according to a federal judge's findings, Freshwater was the only science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School who achieved a "passing" score on the Ohio Achievement Test.

However, in June 2008, the Board of Education voted to fire Freshwater, a Christian, 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, who had served as the faculty appointed facilitator, monitor, and supervisor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes student group for 16 of the 20 years that he taught at Mount Vernon, to remove "all religious items" from his classroom, including a Ten Commandments poster displayed on the door of his classroom, posters with Bible verses, and his personal Bible which he kept on his desk. Freshwater agreed to remove all items except for his Bible. Showing their support for Freshwater, students even organized a rally in his honor. They also wore t-shirts with crosses painted on them to school and carried Bibles to class.

School officials were seemingly unswayed by the outpouring of support for Freshwater. In fact, despite the fact that the Board's own policy states that because religious traditions vary in their treatment of science, teachers should give unbiased instruction so that students may evaluate it "in accordance with their own religious tenets," school officials suspended and eventually fired Freshwater, allegedly for criticizing evolution and failing to teach the required science curriculum.

With the help of The Rutherford Institute, Freshwater is appealing his termination in state court, asserting that the school's actions violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and constituted religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What does MV school board’s statement mean?


The Mount Vernon Board of Education issued a press release criticizing what it referred to as “elements” within the community. The statement then goes on to praise student Zachary Dennis for “coming forward.”

The “elements” are described in the statement as people “who decided to attack the student and family who reported concerns about John Freshwater.”

The statement does not make clear what is meant by “attack.” Barring this as an allegation of assault, “attack” presumably refers to some form of verbal disagreement.

Even then, the lack of clarifying language leaves open the interpretation of what is meant by “attack” and, by extension, who belongs to the group the school board calls the “elements.”

Considering that the statement presents just two sides, the “elements” and the Dennises, readers of the statement could come away thinking that the criticism of the “elements” is a reference to all of the people who have disagreed with the Dennises.

Many of Zachary Dennis’s fellow classmates disagreed with Dennis’s testimony. Are those students to be considered part of the “elements” or are they to be praised for “coming forward”?

If the school board did not intend to offend the majority of the community then it should have included clarifying language.

An example of using clarifying language would be the statement that is at the top of the comments portion of every page on “Comments from all ideological viewpoints are welcome. However, please avoid abusive language and ad hominem attacks.”

(See here for a copy of the press release. PDF 48 KB)

(The community used signs in 2008 to express opinions about the school controversy.)

Use the play button at very bottom of picture to view slideshow.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Case ‘closed’ without trial, without verdict

The Knox County Court of Common Pleas lists John Freshwater’s case—in which he was appealing his firing from Mount Vernon City Schools—as being “closed.”

Freshwater’s appeal never went to trial.

The case disposition is described on the court's website as being that of “Transfer to another judge or court.” asked Freshwater whether he was given an opportunity to challenge the attempt to close his case at the county level. His wife, Nancy, wrote back, “We knew nothing about it; we didn't even know the request was made.”

Attorneys for the Mount Vernon Board of Education had filed a “Notice of Removal” with the county court Wednesday morning. In the filing, the attorneys told the court the “case has been removed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.”

(See here for a copy of the documents. TIFF 339 KB )

The attorneys did not include in their filing a copy of any decision made by a federal judge that shows the transfer of the case was approved.

Although the county court website has an entry that says the case is “finished” and “filed away,” there is no document—such as a decision by county judge Otho Eyster—which corresponds to that entry.

Knox County Clerk of Courts, Mary Jo Hawkins, told that “there is no document for the entry” which says the case is finished. She explained that the entry “is just our notation.”

Included in the documents the school board’s attorneys filed is a copy of the request, apparently filed in federal court, for transfer of the case.

In the request, the school board's attorneys argue: “This case is subject to removal under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) and (b), because the district court has original jurisdiction over this action based on federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1331.”

Freshwater had submitted his appeal to the county court pursuant to Ohio Revised Code 3319.16.: “Any teacher affected by an order of termination of contract may appeal to the court of common pleas of the county in which the school is located.”

The request for removal of the case was reported on by the Mount Vernon News on Wednesday in the article “Board asks to move case to federal court.” Reporter Pamela Schehl wrote, “Attorney Sarah Moore, of the law firm Britton, Smith, Peters & Kalail, said the board filed papers asking to move the Freshwater case to federal court.” asked board members whether the request to move the case to federal court was made directly by the school board or with the prior knowledge and consent of the board. Board president, Dr. Margie Bennett, replied via e-mail: “Prior to the removal of the case to federal court, the Board met in executive session with legal counsel to discuss the case. The details of those discussions are a matter of attorney-client privilege, which no individual board member can waive or disclose.”

UPDATE 3-8-2011:

Federal judge Gregory Frost on Monday signed a memorandum saying that the case should be transferred to his docket.

(See here for a copy of the memorandum. 137 KB PDF)

Previous coverage related to Frost:

April 18, 2010 — “Christian Family Objects to Bible in Classroom”

July 31, 2010 — “Judge to Reconsider Previously Issued Sanctions”

Aug. 4, 2010 — “What’s in the Trash, Stays in the Trash, According to Judge”

Oct. 21, 2010 — “Freshwater Lawsuit Dismissed”

UPDATE 3-13-2011:

Judge Frost on Thursday issued an order questioning whether the federal court has jurisdiction over Freshwater’s case:

“This Court, however, questions whether it has subject matter jurisdiction over this action based upon § 3319.16 of the Ohio Revised Code and, if it does possess jurisdiction, whether it is proper to exercise it in view of the abstention doctrine. Thus, the Court is inclined to sua sponte remand this action. Defendants may have until March 28, 2011, to provide a brief explaining why this action should not be remanded.”

(See here for a copy of the order. 22 KB PDF.)

For additional documents related to this matter, see the website of the National Center for Science Education.

UPDATE 4-5-2011:

Judge Frost on Tuesday issued an order remanding the case back to the county court:

“First, this action was an on-going state judicial proceeding prior to removal to this Court. Plaintiff filed this action in the proper state court as required by § 3319.16 of the Ohio Revised Code. Next, those proceedings certainly implicate important state interests […].Finally, the state court is quite competent to hear Freshwater’s complaints of constitutional violations.”

(See here for a copy of the order. 29 KB PDF.)