Thursday, September 13, 2012

MV school board attorneys ask court for more time to respond to Freshwater’s brief

The Mount Vernon Board of Education’s attorneys are requesting that the Ohio Supreme Court allow them additional time to respond to John Freshwater’s recently filed merit brief.

The attorneys want an extension of ten days, giving them until October 4 to respond to Freshwater’s claim that he was wrongfully terminated from his job teaching at Mount Vernon City Schools.

Although there are currently no other pending related legal cases or hearings, attorneys David Kane Smith, Krista Keim and Paul J. Deegan say that they need this additional time “to fully prepare and brief the issues presented by” Freshwater.

One of the difficulties they explain they are facing is, due to their dissatisfaction with Freshwater’s brief, they cannot simply cut-and-paste Freshwater’s summary of the case thus far. They have to actually write their own brief. And this takes time.

Also, they say they need the additional time to compile more supplemental materials than were included with Freshwater’s brief.

The final reason offered by the three attorneys is that the time leading up to the current deadline overlaps with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah and that the extension period overlaps with Yom Kippur.

Why would the timing of these holidays matter? Because, as the attorneys explain, some unnamed attorneys who want to file an amicus curiae brief are planning on celebrating those holidays.

Two parties did previously file amicus curiae briefs when the case was before the 5th District Court of Appeals in Ohio: the National Center for Science Education, an evolution advocacy group, and Stephen and Jenifer Dennis, witnesses in the state administrative hearing.

The NCSE website’s document list for the case does not list any documents showing that the court even accepted either of the previous amicus curiae briefs. Neither amicus curiae brief was cited by the district court in its decision in March.

See here for a copy of the motion for extension of time.

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


Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor issued the following order on September 14:

“On written request of appellee, it is ordered that the time for filing the merit brief is hereby extended to October 4, 2012.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

Press release: Rutherford Institute asks Ohio Supreme Court to affirm right of science teacher to urge students to think critically about evolution

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

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio—In filing a merits brief with the Ohio Supreme Court in Freshwater v. Mount Vernon, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked the Court to hold that the Mount Vernon City School District violated the academic freedom rights of teacher John Freshwater and his students by firing Freshwater for encouraging public school students to think critically about the school’s science curriculum, particularly as it relates to evolution theories. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed to The Rutherford Institute’s request to hear the case, which arose after the Mount Vernon City School District’s Board of Education suspended Freshwater, a 24-year veteran in the classroom, in 2008 and officially terminated him in January 2011. The Board justified its actions by accusing 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,” 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.”

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, 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 using unapproved materials to facilitate classroom discussion of origins of life theories. Freshwater appealed the 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 hostility toward religion. A Common Pleas judge upheld the School Board’s decision, as did the Fifth District Court of Appeals, without analyzing these constitutional claims. In appealing to the Ohio Supreme Court, Institute attorneys argued that the Board through its actions violated the First Amendment academic freedom rights of both Freshwater and his students.

Additional information:

"Attorneys ask Freshwater be reinstated as teacher" by Pamela Schehl, Mount Vernon News

"Firing of Bible-toting teacher under review: Ohio Supremes asked to restore John Freshwater to classroom" by Bob Unruh, WND

John Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, case information and documents, Supreme Court of Ohio

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Freshwater files brief with Ohio Supreme Court

John Freshwater, through his attorneys, filed a merit brief with the Ohio Supreme Court on Friday. The brief presents the basis for his claim that he was wrongfully terminated from his job teaching at Mount Vernon City Schools.

(See here for a copy of the brief.)

In firing Freshwater, the Mount Vernon Board of Education took the position that a public school teacher could not present evidence both for and against evolution, allow students to question material in the textbooks or encourage students to think critically about science in general.

The school board’s resolution firing Freshwater also stated that the teacher failed to remove some unspecified “religious articles” from his classroom. (The only documented item that Freshwater was told to remove but didn’t remove was his personal Bible.)

 “As an eighth-grade science teacher,” the brief says, “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 school board’s resolution characterized this teaching methodology as being religious. In laying out the board’s reasons for the firing, the board used a hierarchical outline, divided into two sections, with the section about teaching methodology leading with the statement: “Freshwater injected his personal religious beliefs into his plan and pattern of instructing his students. In doing so, he exceeded the bounds of all the pertinent Bylaws/Policies of the Mount Vernon City School District.”

Freshwater’s brief rebuts the idea that it is improper for teachers to present material that coincides with religious beliefs:

“Academic freedom would be an empty platitude if it provided no protection from censorship of ideas that have religious connections or implications. The impact of the loss of academic freedom on the development of science, technology, and the pursuit of learning in general would be profound and tragic. Consider that while today’s science class may discuss modern theories of origins of life first espoused in the Bible (and censored on that basis alone), yesterday’s classes considered theories about the Hydrologic Cycle or the spherical Earth—also enshrined in religious texts long before accepted by science. The advancement of knowledge demands that students and teachers be free to consider, discuss and debate ideas of all kinds rather than forced to discard any due to the government’s disdain for its source.”

The brief concludes with the following statements:

 “The Board’s actions are nothing less than the censorship of ideas. As such, they eviscerate the First Amendment academic freedom rights of Freshwater and his students, and they transgress the neutrality requirement of the Establishment Clause. As the United States Supreme Court has instructed, ‘students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding.’

“Here the Board has ignored these essential principles and attempted to transform students into ‘closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate.’”

Freshwater is seeking monetary damages and reinstatement to his position teaching eighth-grade science.

The brief was filed on behalf of Freshwater by his attorneys R. Kelly Hamilton and Rita M. Dunaway, both affiliated with The Rutherford Institute.

Note: Internal case citations were omitted from the quotes from the brief. 

Additional information:

John Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, case information and documents, Supreme Court of Ohio

“Press release: Ohio Supreme Court agrees to hear Rutherford Institute’s case of science teacher fired for urging students to think critically about evolution”

“MV school board: Firing of Freshwater not of public interest”

“Press release: Rutherford Institute appeals to Ohio SupremeCourt on behalf of science teacher fired for urging students to think critically about evolution”

“District court rules against Freshwater’s appeal”

“Freshwater appeals to 5th District Court”

“County judge rules against Freshwater’s appeal”

“What does MV school board’s statement mean?”

“School board votes 4-1 to fire Freshwater”

“Freshwater’s Closing Arguments: Allegations Unsubstantiated”

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