State Supreme Court justices sparred with lawyers on Wednesday in a
heated hour of arguments over the extent to which a now-fired public
school science teacher had the right to push his religious beliefs in
A lawyer for the school board that dismissed John
Freshwater in 2011 said he waved a Bible at his students, handed out
religious pamphlets and espoused creationism in his evolution lessons.
violated the constitutional separation between church and state and was
rightfully fired, said David Smith, an attorney for the Mount Vernon
said Freshwater can't "teach evolution from a Christian perspective"
without violating constitutional protections against government
establishment of religion.
"There is no academic freedom
of the teacher to do that," Smith argued. "This is not a case about
industrial hemp. It's not a case about the Iraqi war. Political
sociological viewpoint is something completely different."
attorney, Rita Dunaway, said accounts of Freshwater's class conduct
were exaggerated and he was exercising his academic freedom to explore
She said the board's decision to dismiss Freshwater showed hostility toward religion.
board's position basically boils down to the proposition that simply
offering students evidence of the gaps or flaws in evolutionary theory
is equal to religious indoctrination," she said.
Dunaway said Freshwater had a laudable teaching record and his students scored well on standardized science tests.
was dismissed after investigators reported he preached Christian
beliefs in class when discussing topics such as evolution and
homosexuality and was insubordinate in failing to remove the Bible from
Justices appeared perplexed, at times irritated, about what lawyers believed was the legal issue before them.
Paul Pfeifer was incredulous when Smith argued that Freshwater's
evolution class wouldn't have been covered under the school district's
"So there's nothing controversial about evolution," he said. "It is a theory, isn't it?"
also had been accused of using a science tool to burn students' arms
with the image of a cross, but that allegation was resolved and was not a
factor in his firing.
Justices nevertheless pursued the
issue on Wednesday, asking what role it played in Freshwater being
investigated. Smith speculated that attention surrounding that incident
was what prompted the school board's investigation into Freshwater's
The board, in its review, concluded
Freshwater had used a high-frequency generator, which other teachers
have used to demonstrate electrical current, to burn a cross onto a
student's arm. The cross lasted a few weeks.
The student's family settled a federal lawsuit against the district in an effort to move on.
Freshwater's dismissal case, he is getting legal backing from the
Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties
group. Science education and humanist and secular groups have joined the
side of the school board.
The school board argues that
as far back as 1994 a middle school principal told Freshwater to stop
distributing an "Answers in Genesis" pamphlet, which contained
information about a creationist organization's seminar, according to a
filing by board attorneys asking the court to uphold Freshwater's
Freshwater also used a handout titled "Survival
of the Fakest" to teach his students to doubt science, the board's
Two lower courts previously upheld Freshwater's dismissal.
the back of the courtroom Wednesday, 17-year-old Esther Sorg and 18
other students from Wilmington Christian Academy, about an hour
southwest of Columbus, listened in as part of a school field trip.
said her science classes include evolution and it seems public school
classes could include the creationist perspective without harm.
eighth-grade science class was taught from a Christian perspective, but
we discussed evolution as well," she said. "I thought that was good
because I wanted to know what the current theories were."