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Did Public School Teacher's Firing for Allowing Students to Consider Weaknesses in Evolution Theory Violate First Amendment Principles of Academic Freedom?

John Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, Case no. 2012-0613

ISSUE: Did the firing of a public school teacher for discussing with students the gaps in evolution theory and for keeping a Bible on his desk violate the teacher's right to academic freedom and manifest hostility toward Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause?

Ohio Supreme Court: Rutherford Institute Defends Academic Freedom of Teacher Fired for Urging Students to Think Critically About Evolution

Rita_Dunnaway_Arguing_Case_before_Ohio_Supreme_CourtMOUNT VERNON, Ohio—In oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court on February 27, Rita Dunnaway of the Rutherford Institute defended the right to academic freedom of a science teacher fired for encouraging students to think critically about the school’s science curriculum, particularly as it relates to evolution theories.

Rita Dunaway (right), Attorney at The Rutherford Institute and Advisor to the Virginia Christian Alliance

In coming to veteran science teacher John Freshwater’s defense, Institute attorneys argue that the Mount Vernon City School District violated John Freshwater’s academic freedom rights—and those of his students—by firing him in January 2011. The Institute argues that where a teacher’s speech is in compliance with all Board policies and directly relates to the prescribed curriculum, the school should not be permitted to terminate the teacher’s employment as a means of censoring a particular academic viewpoint from the classroom.

 

“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. By firing John Freshwater for challenging his students to think outside the box, school officials violated a core First Amendment freedom—the right to debate and express ideas contrary to established views.”

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 argue that the Board through its actions violated the First Amendment academic freedom rights of both Freshwater and his students. The Board attempted to have the Ohio Supreme Court strike the First Amendment claims from the lawsuit, but was unsuccessful.

Case History

Legal Action

 

Click here to read The Rutherford Institute's merits brief to the Ohio Supreme Court

Rita M. Dunaway graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia University in 1998, having earned a B.S. in Journalism and a B.A. in Political Science simultaneously. She then attended law school at Washington and Lee University School of Law, graduating cum laude in 2001. Rita practiced law for a short time in a general civil practice in Harrisonburg before becoming a full-time staff attorney at The Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville. When her first child was born in 2004, Rita left full-time legal work to become a stay-at-home mom. Now with two children, she practices part-time for The Rutherford Institute and serves as Chief Legal Counsel to The Valley Family Forum. Rita has been working for several years now to lay the groundwork for a variation of "personhood" legislation in the Virginia General Assembly. Rita's husband, Scott, is a dentist in Harrisonburg. They are members of Covenant Presbyterian Church.
Rita blogs on "Fundamental Things"


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