John Freshwater will burn crosses on students’ arms no more (see picture released by school officials to the AP, at right), at least in Mount Vernon, Ohio. He has been sacked.
On Friday, the Mount Vernon school board reviewed a 15-page investigative report on Freshwater’s actions in the classroom, and voted to dismiss the science teacher of 21 years.
Freshwater had been accused, among other things, of using a Tesla coil to burn a cross in a student’s arm, proselytizing students, teaching creationism contrary to school policy, and refusing to remove a Bible from his desk.
He and school officials still face legal action. The family of the student whose arm was burned filed a civil complaint in US District Court in Columbus last week, naming Freshwater and school officials as defendants. The law suit alleges Freshwater’s religious activities in the classroom violated the civil rights of the student, known only as John Doe.
The complaint also alleges school officials failed to reprimand Freshwater sufficiently after the arm-burning incident, and permitted him to proselytize students in class in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Freshwater, a fundamentalist Christian by all appearances, became a poster child for the so-called “war on Christianity” earlier this year when he refused to remove his copy of the Bible from his desk. Christian students in the school held rallies for his support, and a local right-wing Christianist radio commentator championed Freshwater as yet another victim of the secular war on religion. (See this story at WorldNetDaily, which quotes said commentator.)
Soon after, allegations of other Freshwater’s religious activities in the classroom came out, including most famously the arm-burning incident. School officials finally had to act like they were doing something and hired an independent investigator to check into the allegations. Meanwhile, they allowed Freshwater to continue to teach, but with an observer in the room.
Freshwater was very popular among the students; we can guess mostly among the Christians. Whether that popularity spilled out into students of other religious persuasions is doubtful. The hoo-roar about the Bible and Freshwater’s beliefs polarized the rural school’s student body, with so-called Christian students turning the whole issue into an Us-versus-Them deal.
Students who did not bring a Bible to school were assumed to be against the Bible, Freshwater, and probably God and country, too. One student who brought a Torah to school was taunted by students who didn’t quite understand that the Torah forms part of the Christian Old Testament.
[An aside: I see a TV movie coming out of this whole thing. Better it be a documentary or a 60 Minutes segment, but some alert Hollywood writer has got to see the real-life drama here. You wait. The networks might be able to whip something up by spring.]
The District Court case will be interesting to watch. There is no jury, just a judge. As the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling proved, even conservative judges have a better understanding of the First Amendment than most Christianists do. Freshwater was so blatant in his proselytizing that he was clearly infringing the Establishment Clause, which essentially says that the government cannot establish a State Church.
The writers of the Constitution remembered what problems many colonists had with the State Churches in their home countries, after all, and made it a point to protect freedom of religion in the new United States.
Legal opinions since then have held that public schools, and public school teachers, are agents of the government and therefore cannot actively promote one religion over any other. Freshwater is bound to be afoul of that legal precedent, judging from all the evidence available publicly.
The “war on Christianity” nutjobs, of course, have turned the Bible-on-the-desk thing into a religious crusade of sorts, conveniently ignoring the arm-burning problem and the constitutional issues or characterizing them as “attacks” on the good Christian soldier John Freshwater.
Secular forces (you can read that to mean satanic forces, if you like; most Christianists don’t distinguish between the adjectives much) are trying to quash Christians’ freedom to be Christian. Freshwater, they say, is just another victim of this conspiracy.
There is no legal requirement that Freshwater or any other teacher for that matter set aside his or religion in order to teach in a public school. There cannot be; his freedom to worship is a First Amendment right.
So, Freshwater can go off and pray somewhere, read his Bible, perhaps even discuss informally with students what he did in church last Sunday. If a teacher has to, he or she can take religious holidays off, wear a yarmulke or head scarf, or even funny underwear, as long the teacher does not tell his or her students that they have to do the same thing.
If Freshwater had his Bible out in the open and left it at that, his superiors probably would not have batted an eyelash. It was Freshwater’s blatant preaching and teaching in class that raised a red flag. He was effectively telling his seventh graders that they had to believe as he believes, or face the awful consequences.
Whether those consequences meant lower grades or an uncomfortable afterlife remains to be learned.
In a quasi-rural community like Mount Vernon, Freshwater’s activities might have been okay if everyone in the town was of the same brand of Christian as he. Times and demographics have changed, though. Mount Vernon is now a bedroom community for Dayton, as well as a farm town, so the formerly homogenous religious population, if it ever really existed, is gone.
The local schools now have Jews, atheists, wiccans, who knows what, and the kind of behavior that Freshwater was exhibiting stands out like a angry grizzly in a campground. Maybe Freshwater took that as a challenge, to win over the heathens, but his superiors should have shut him down right away.
Instead they dithered, probably to avoid offending all the old-timer Christians in the community, leading to the current chain of events. Now they’re in hot water in federal court and in news articles on CNN. Out of the frying pan into the fire.
So many other school districts have fallen into this same trap that it makes one wonder whether their officials ever pay attention to the news. I guess it’s easier to stick their heads in the sand and hope the difficult problems just go away.
Too bad it doesn’t work.