MOUNT VERNON, Ohio – John Freshwater was an 8th grade science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School for 24 years.
But he is also a devout Christian, and his refusal to hide that fact from his students eventually cost him his job.
Freshwater was suspended in 2008 without pay for refusing an order to remover his Bible from his classroom desk.
He went beyond ignoring the order – he was openly defiant, because he felt his rights were being violated. He not only refused to remove his Bible from his desk, but went to the school library and checked out two religious books that he placed on his desk, as well.
That may have been his undoing. The school board considered it an act insubordination and fired him in 2011 after a lengthy hearing process.
OneNewsNow.com reports that, at about the same time Freshwater was ordered to remove his Bible, another teacher in the district was also told to remove hers from her desk. But after filing a grievance she was allowed to display the Bible “for the present time.”
“So someone was singling me out,” Freshwater said.
Freshwater responded by suing the school, claiming his First Amendment rights to free speech and free worship had been violated. But two lower courts upheld his termination, and the Ohio Supreme Court refused to overturn those rulings.
The Supreme Court justices handed down a split decision of 4-3 in favor of the lower court rulings. But they did rule that he had a right to keep his Bible on his desk, which was a partial victory for those who are troubled by the sustained national progressive effort to keep all traces of Christianity out of public schools, while urging tolerance and acceptance of other religious faiths.
As the Columbus Dispatch reported, “The Ohio Supreme Court concluded that Freshwater had the right to keep a Bible on his desk, ruling it was so inconspicuous that ‘many students never even noticed the Bible, or only realized it was in the classroom after it became a highlight of this controversy.
“But the state court ruled that Freshwater’s refusal to remove other religious materials — such as the books he had checked out of the library — demonstrated ‘blatant insubordination.’ That insubordination is established by clear and convincing evidence, and the record fully supports the board’s decision to terminate him on these grounds.”
Freshwater appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices recently announced they would not hear the case.
“It’s sad,” Freshwater said, “but Ohio teachers now can be found insubordinate for going down to their library and checking out a book.”
Freshwater believes his problems at school began more than a decade ago, when he requested that a critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution be brought down from the 10th grade level to the 8th grade.
His request went before the school board, and after a heated debate between educators on both sides of the issue, Freshwater’s request was denied.
“So that was a period of time that I was a ‘marked’ science teacher in that school, especially by the strong, evolutionist teachers at the high school,” which is right next to the middle school, Freshwater said.
Then came the 2007-08 school year, when a new superintendent was hired by the district, and a new principal and vice principal took over at his school.
“Immediately, within a week or two, they were putting all kinds of restrictions on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (a student group that Freshwater advised), which at that time had been going on for about 18 years,” Freshwater said.
“They started putting restrictions on the speakers and things like that. The numbers started to really dwindle. It went from hundreds down to 15 or 20 because the kids had to have signatures and different things. And you had to have speakers signed up weeks in advance. They were just making things very difficult for the kids.”
Then came the school’s order to Freshwater to remove his Bible and other religious items. When he refused, a string of 30 allegations were made against him, including what he calls absurd charges that he performed an exorcism, and preached to students, at school.
At one point a monitor was assigned to his classroom to make sure he didn’t display his Christian beliefs in any way.
Freshwater demanded a state hearing, which was conducted with an independent referee. The hearing, which involved 909 witnesses and 6,000 pages of sworn statements, dragged on for 39 days.
The referee ruled in favor of the school on a Friday, and Freshwater was fired the following Monday.
His legal effort proved to be extremely costly. He said several non-profit legal organizations, like the American Center for Law and Justice, the Liberty Counsel, and Alliance Defending Freedom, refused to represent him as his case moved through the lower courts.
He was forced to sell his 30-acre family farm to pay his legal expenses. Finally the Rutherford Institute agreed to argue his case pro bono before the Ohio Supreme Court.
Freshwater’s case drew supporters, including three Supreme Court justices.
Justice Paul Pfeiffer wrote the dissenting opinion on the behalf of the minority, regarding the charge of insubordination:
“What work rule or order did Freshwater violate by checking out the books from the library?” Pfeiffer wrote. “Was there a work rule that teachers could not check out a book from the school library and keep it in their work area? Does the lead opinion really mean to say that books of a religious nature are acceptable in the library but not acceptable to be checked out from the library? Or is it only practicing Christians who cannot check out from the library?
“Freshwater’s not accused of reading to his class from the books or assigning the books to his class. They were school property and could have been removed at any time. There’s no documented complaint about the books and no specific order that they be removed.”
Freshwater said his case involved two main arguments.
“One, whether firing a public school teacher for checking out and possessing school library books as a form of passive protest violates the First Amendment,” he said. “And two, whether firing a public school teacher (who is) teaching the scientific strengths and weaknesses of biologic evolution violates the First Amendment. That’s what the whole case was about.”
As the court case dragged on over the years, Freshwater applied for hundreds of teaching positions, but said he failed to secure a single interview due to the nature of his lawsuit. He said he was even rejected when he applied for a school bus driver position.
He finally secured a job at a Christian school in Columbus, a two-hour drive from his home. His wife could not accompany him because she was caring for her elderly parents and his infirm mother. He worked for two years, only seeing his wife on the weekends, before resigning to spend more time at home.
Today he’s driving a produce truck around Ohio. He still has hopes of teaching again, now that the years of litigation are behind him.
“Just because it was denied does not mean that the U.S. Supreme Court agrees or disagrees with the findings of the Ohio Supreme Court….it doesn’t reflect on it,” Freshwater said. “They chose not to pick up on the case.”