Ohio Supreme court: it’s legal to fire a creationist teacher

If you follow creationism, you’ll be familiar with the case of John Freshwater, a teacher of eighth-grade science students (i.e., 14-year-olds) in Ohio. He was a goddie who taught creationism, kept a Bible on his desk, bedecked the classroom walls with religious pictures, and became notorious for burning the sign of the cross into one of his student’s arms to demonstrate the principle of a Tesla coil.  Here’s Freshwater’s demonstration of “science”, an exhibit used in the civil court case against him (it was settled out of court):

800px-John.Freshwater-crossarm

The compatibility of science and religion

After three years of back-and-forth, the school board fired Freshwater in 2011. He appealed his dismissal to the county court, which denied it. He then appealed to a higher court, the Ohio Fifth District Court of Appeals. The appeal was denied again. Freshwater’s last resort was an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, which heard his case in February.  The court issued its decision two days ago: Freshwater’s firing would stand. You can see the final ruling as a pdf file here (it includes the dissents).

As The Raw Story reports, the decision was surprisingly close: 4-3. And it was upheld not on the grounds that he was teaching creationism, but that he refused to remove religious materials from the classroom despite orders of his boss (displaying those religious materials are, however, just as much a violations of the First Amendment as is teaching creationism):

The court issued a 4-3 ruling Tuesday that agreed with an appeals court and the trial court that teacher John Freshwater had failed to comply with orders to remove religious materials from his classroom.

The court said that was enough to spur Freshwater’s dismissal, so it didn’t even need to rule on whether the teacher impermissibly imposed his religious views in the classroom.

“We recognize that this case is driven by a far more powerful debate over the teaching of creationism and intelligent design alongside evolution,” the court noted in its decision. “(But) here, we need not decide whether Freshwater acted with a permissible or impermissible intent because we hold that he was insubordinate, and his termination can be justified on that basis alone.”

That would seem a bit cowardly, as they could have ruled on the creationism issue as well. As the decision notes, though, courts try to avoid adjudicating constitutional issues whenever possible.

They upheld Freshwater’s firing simply because he was insubordinate, refusing to take religious matter out of his class when ordered (these included the Bible that he kept on his desk and pictures on the wall showing George W. Bush and Colin Powell in prayer). An excerpt from the decision:

Screen shot 2013-11-22 at 10.27.59 AM

The judges took the easy way out, and even that was close. Nevertheless, the court decision is full of interesting information like this:

Screen shot 2013-11-22 at 10.36.25 AM

The Raw Story summarizes the basis for the three judges’ dissent:

The minority disagreed, writing in their opinion that Freshwater had been “singled out by the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education because of his willingness to challenge students in his science classes to think critically about evolutionary theory and to permit them to discuss intelligent design and to debate creationism in connection with the presentation of the prescribed curriculum on evolution.”

Apparently those judges haven’t gotten the messages that it is a violation of the Constitution to teach creationism in science classes, and that “singling someone out” for so doing is entirely fair. That’s settled law. But they also claimed was that it was not grounds for insubordination to keep a Bible on one’s desk, completely avoiding the issue of whether such insubordination also violated the Constitution.

As far as I can see, then, it’s clearly unconstitutional to teach creationism (as Freshwater did) in his science class, but it’s not settled law about whether someone can be fired for doing that. I suspect that if such a teacher were ordered to desist, and refused, then firing would be legal.

h/t: dano1843

16 Comments

  1. Posted November 22, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    3 years? It took way too long to get rid of this guy. It should have taken a few months at most.

  2. Posted November 22, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Why would a cretin like this even start a career teaching science? Going to the trouble of getting a teaching qualification and learning the science sounds like a very roundabout and laborious way to get access to kids. Surely seminary + a school chaplain gig would’ve been less laborious and problematic.

    I find it hard to parse that this guy hated science so much that he dedicated a significant portion of his life to become a qualified teacher of it, just so he could undermine it. Imagine if a skeptic did the same – attended seminary, made all the right noises and then infiltrated, say, Liberty U or some megachurch and started throwing atheism in the students’ faces. There’d be head-scratching and raised eyebrows and Whiskey Tango Foxtrots from both sides.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 23, 2013 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      Why would a cretin like this even start a career teaching science?

      (1) To give himself a platform for his views, and (2) quite possibly to allow himself to claim to have been martyred on the altar of his religion.
      Some people think that will attract the chicks. Personally, if I had my way and my Pastafarian belief system didn’t restrain me, I’d get all Nordic on a few people like this, show them what being sacrificed on the altar really means. Then let the chicks get at them. Eagle chicks. And the method of sacrifice of course being playing the starring role in a blood eagle.
      Somehow, I think that’s not what they are hoping for.
      Where’s my clipboard? I feel like making someone suffer!

  3. Alektorophile
    Posted November 22, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I find it particularly sad that the case involves a science teacher, who should know better.

    Happily I never encountered any creationism in any of the schools I went to. Au contraire. I remember with particular fondness my high school chemistry teacher, a rather colorful character, who on day one pointed at the periodic table of the elements hanging on the classroom wall and told us, I cite: “This is the bible. The true one. Forget about the other one, that one is crap. This one is all you’ll ever need”. Needless to say I didn’t go to school in the US.

  4. Jules
    Posted November 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    This is certainly a severe and somewhat bizarre case. However, often with news stories such as this, the event was a freak occurrence. With fifty million students in public schools around the US, you would expect terrible teachers like this to slip through the system every now and then. The real question is whether religion is a chronic or widespread problem in public schools.

    While there are issues with creationism in schools, especially at a local level, I would venture to say that the federal government does a marvelous job at combating this sort of thing. If power was left entirely with local authorities or even the states, religion would be a much more serious problem in some parts of the nation. We should be thankful that we have a strong central government that sets uniform standards.

    • Posted November 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      This is not a rare occurrence. In many parts of the country, such as where I am now, teacher simply won’t TEACH evolution, In the county north of where I am, the county made all the teachers glue the pages about evolution in the biology texts together, so they couldn’t be read. Surveys show that about a third of public school biology teachers water down evolution when they teach it, injecting creationism or ID in what they teach, and 28% of them are creationists themselves!

      The federal government can’t monitor what’s taught in the classroom, so until someone complains about the lack of evolution, this kind of thing will be rife.

      I’m sorry, but you’re simply wrong if you thing that it’s a rare and freak occurrence for public school teachers to foist religious views on their students.

      • Posted November 22, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        s.a.m.e. re the teaching of other realities: IF, say on Tuesday afternoon, ANY secondary HISTORY teacher or elementary teacher in her or his ‘social studies’ sections actually taught what very, very often happened to teens who in 1953, or say 1961, or even long in to their 20s, came up pregnant OR taught .ANYWHERE in the World. ANY chapters of Mz Rosalind Miles’ The Women’s History of the World ( isbn of 0609806955 ), IF they did: these same teachers ‘d, by their respective school boards and principals EVERYWHERE, be fired by Friday afternoon !

        Blue

        • Posted November 22, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

          isbn 0143038974 = for what happened to pregnant teens and young adults … …
          “in the decades ‘fore Roe v Wade.”

          Learn this, dijya’, in biology or (world or American) history classes ? !

          Not.

          Blue

  5. Richard C
    Posted November 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the courts here, and nothing about their ruling was cowardly. Their job is to resolve individual disputes, and this one was about whether a school is allowed to fire an out of control teacher who burns crosses into his students’ arms and refuses his employer’s demands to remove religious insignia from the taxpayer-owned classroom he just happened to work in.

    There’s no need to reopen debate on a well-established precedent when the case is already cut-and-dry by itself. Occam’s Razor is just as important in law as it is in science.

    • Bob J.
      Posted November 22, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      Moreover, if they had ruled on the religious questions the case may well end up in Federal court and I doubt the judges on both sides wants another Dover trial.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 23, 2013 at 2:59 am | Permalink

      whether a school is allowed to fire an out of control teacher who burns crosses into his students’ arms

      The desire for practising pleurotomy (a word I just made up, intending it to describe operations involving cutting out people’s lungs ; see “blood eagles” above) aside, for anyone, science teacher or not, to go around burning marks like this into people with high-voltage electricity is dangerously stupid. If I came across the ships sparky (electrician ; certified to work on live kV circuits carrying kA) doing this sort of thing with another sparky (i.e. both responsible adults knowing what they’re playing with), then they’d both be damned lucky to avoid being fired for gross misconduct on health and safety grounds. And they’d expect it.
      To do that with a school pupil to whom you owe a “duty of care” (UK term ; I’m sure some duty functionally similar exists for caring professions in the US) is grounds for immediate dismissal there and then. Do not pass ‘Go’, do not collect tomorrow’s pay check. Count yourself lucky if you get today’s pay check.
      On those grounds, the court and prosecutors did the right thing of smacking the teacher off the rolls using the simplest and least arguable lines of attack they’ve got. And even that took far too long. But since it costs money, brains and time to force such psychotics out of the profession, using anything but the most direct route to “Get Out!” is not making best use public funds.

  6. eric
    Posted November 22, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    it was upheld not on the grounds that he was teaching creationism, but that he refused to remove religious materials from the classroom despite orders of his boss (displaying those religious materials are, however, just as much a violations of the First Amendment as is teaching creationism)

    This decision was about as bad as it could be and still get Freshwater fired. Let’s tally the pros and cons.

    Pro: Freshwater will no longer proselytize 30-60 kids per year in class.

    Con: it is now legal for teachers throughout Ohio to keep bibles on their desk, which is sure to influence many more kids and have stifling or suppressing effect on nonchristian kids.

    Con: the logic used to uphold the firing could easily be extended to punish good teachers in the future that use some form of symbolic speech to object to an administrative order, even as they follow it by the letter. Some teacher gets written up, and as a symbolic protest speech they check out an anti-authoritative book and put it on their desk (maybe Nelson Mandela? MLK?). Guess what? That might now be considered insubordination. Because checking out two other books after removing his bible and putting them on his desk was the only event that the judges ruled was a firing offense.

    Now, I hope that that last is an extreme interpretation that never gets implemented. But the first con is uncontestable; the judges affirming the judgement included a defense of bible-on-the-desk conduct in their decision!

    So it seems to me that in this case, we won the skirmish but lost a big battle…and possibly a really big battle.

  7. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted November 23, 2013 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    Con: it is now legal for teachers throughout Ohio to keep bibles on their desk, which is sure to influence many more kids and have stifling or suppressing effect on nonchristian kids.

    Was that point actually ruled on?
    I read (pilcrow)5 cited in Jerry’s post as meaning that they simply didn’t get as far as those claims before finding sufficient grounds to return a verdict. “not addressed” does not mean “accepted”, does it?
    If I were to “pop a cap” in Queen Brenda’s regal posterior while wearing David Icke’s underpants on my head and screaming “get the lizard Queen!”, I rather doubt that the courts would spend much time considering my arguments that, as His Holiness David has proved, Queen Brenda really is a lizard from the planet tharg.

  8. Mary L
    Posted November 23, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    The remark on the periodic table of elements reminded me of my first day in HS chemistry class. Our teacher pointed to the giant poster over the chalk board, and said, “This is the biggest cheat sheet you’ll ever see.”

  9. Diane G.
    Posted November 23, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    sub


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