Seven years after he was fired from his job, middle school science teacher John Freshwater hopes the United State Supreme Court will hear his case.
Maybe you can remember the lurid stories in the national news media about the crazed “Christian” chasing his students to brand crosses on them. Those were quickly shown to be untrue, as you’ll see from the report published by Chalcedon at the time.1
Freshwater, in 2007, the same year he was fired, had been honored as the Mount Vernon, Ohio, school district’s Teacher of the Year. He was popular with the students and well-respected in the community. If the “branding” story wasn’t true, then why was he fired?
Late last year the Ohio Supreme Court ruled, 4–3, that Freshwater’s dismissal was justified because he was insubordinate to school officials.
But was he actually fired for standing firm for his Christian faith and refusing to back down? Why, after twenty-one successful years as a teacher, did the Mount Vernon school board decide to fire him?
The Price He’s Paid
John Freshwater currently teaches science at a Christian school. He lost more than his public school teaching job, fighting this case. To pay some $250,000 in legal fees, he told Chalcedon, he had to sell his house and farm. In the intervening seven years, his three children grew up. His son is serving in the Army Reserve, after a tour of duty in Afghanistan; his elder daughter has just been graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy as a flight officer; and his younger daughter is in college. He lives in a house for which he is the caretaker. His wife lives with her ailing parents, for whom she is a caregiver, and the two of them spend their weekends together.
“I did my diligence. I was obedient to God, and I’m content,” he said. “I don’t see a whole lot that I’d do differently. I believe I’m doing what God put me on the earth to do.”
Why would he expect the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case?
“The Ohio Supreme Court ruled against me by only one vote,” he said, “and the dissenting opinion was just unbelievable. It was phenomenal, what those three judges wrote. They called the majority decision cowardly and arrogant.
“There were serious First Amendment issues in my case that the majority just avoided. Okay, the Supreme Court hearing is a long shot—but the Court may want to deal with those issues.”
“The Power of Hysteria”
“We need not reach the constitutional issue of whether Freshwater impermissibly imposed his religious beliefs in his classroom,” was the majority opinion of the Ohio court. But we couldn’t help turning to the dissent—and to the especially vigorous dissent by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.2
Justice Pfeifer called it “a case bounding with arrogance and cowardice,” referring to the school board’s expressed desire to avoid further lawsuits, and asked, “Should Freshwater be fired for indicating his resistance to a policy that the court has declared illegal?” That referred to the school’s demand that the teacher not keep a Bible on his desk. “This case illustrates the importance of leadership and the power of hysteria,” he wrote. “This case should be a cautionary tale for other school boards, a case study of what not to do.”
He finished with this: “Thus concludes the sorry saga of John Freshwater, excellent junior-high science teacher, terminated as a result of an extreme overreaction of the parents of a decent student, followed by even less informed and measured responses by Mount Vernon school administrators and the school board. The Mount Vernon school board and school administrators are the nominal winners of this case, but they have managed to divide a really nice community and cost the school board and/or its insurance providers well over a million dollars to free itself of a very good teacher. And the people they did it for left town.”
The Tesla Coil Incident
This last comment refers to the family whose son was supposedly burned severely—branded on the forearm with a cross, was the allegation—in a routine classroom experiment with a Tesla coil: an experiment which Freshwater had performed many times before with no ill effects.
The majority on the Ohio court agreed with a referee’s finding that the Tesla coil incident—which was at the heart of the national news media reports—was greatly overblown: “speculation and imagination had pushed reality aside.”
Justice Pfeifer wrote, “That Tesla coil mark on poor Zach’s arm—the one Freshwater claimed was an X and they [the parents] claimed was a cross—started looking an awful lot like a dollar sign.” He characterized the parents as “hypervigilant.”
So the “branding” incident was dismissed; and the Ohio court agreed, 6–1, that Freshwater had a right to keep a Bible on his desk and that school officials were wrong in demanding he remove it. Where, then, was the insubordination? (Don’t blame me for asking: that’s what Justice Pfeifer was trying, unsuccessfully, to figure out.)
The Big Battalions
John Freshwater is a creationist, and he taught his middle-school students to question the theory of evolution and to think about it critically. As Chalcedon reported seven years ago, Mount Vernon’s high school science teachers resented that.
“Friend of the court” briefs were filed with the Ohio Supreme Court by several national organizations asking the court to uphold Freshwater’s termination.
Citizens United, perhaps uninformed about the referee’s ruling, excoriated Freshwater “for intentionally burning his students’ extremities.” (Note the use of the plural!) Citizens United believed he burned crosses into students’ flesh: “the selection of a cross was of a piece with Freshwater’s other conduct advancing and endorsing religion in class.” The ignorance and bigotry of that comment speak for themselves.
The American Humanist Association, in calling for Freshwater’s ouster, said they were “protecting the value of religious neutrality.”
The National Center for Science Education said Freshwater should never even have mentioned creationism or the theory of intelligent design. “The Theory of Evolution is universally accepted by scientists and Freshwater’s ‘alternatives’ to Evolution are religious beliefs, not science.” If an idea is “universally accepted,” does that mean it must be true?
But John Freshwater was not daunted by the big battalions arrayed against him. “It’s amazing what one person who stands up can do,” he said.
Then, of course, there were also the reports by various news media depicting him as a sadistic maniac who branded his students—while, as Geraldo Rivera reported, “brandishing” his Bible. Although those reports were all found to be untrue, not a single reporter who relayed them to the nation ever called him to apologize, Freshwater said; nor is he aware of any retractions or corrections.
“Do you think they would ever apologize for that?” he said. “It took two years for the court-appointed referee to determine that those stories weren’t true. But I’ve never heard from anyone who reported them as true.”
As we discovered when Chalcedon reported on the case seven years ago, investigators—and the local newspaper—found very early on that the infamous “Tesla coil incident” was greatly exaggerated. But that didn’t stop the national media from jumping on it.
Will the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case? Will it decide to reverse the Ohio court’s ruling?
“Who knows?” John Freshwater said. “I hope to win, but if I don’t, I don’t. I’m working, I have a roof over my head, my wife and I are taking care of our family, and I’ve been obedient.
“I don’t see how I could have avoided this, but I don’t think about that. I’m content.”
2. All quotes from the Ohio Supreme Court case are from a link to the ruling provided by The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2013/11/19/1119-freshwater-firing-upheld.html.