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Ohio teacher's firing may be a cautionary tale for Kansas

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The Ohio Supreme Court ruled this week in favor of a school district that fired an eighth grade science teacher for injecting too much religion into his classrooms, thus bringing to an end a long, drawn-out legal battle that appeared to contain every element of the culture wars surrounding public education and the judicial system.

In the end, though, the messy case of John Freshwater vs. the Mount Vernon School District offered almost no validation for any side in the partisan political battles over issues about evolution and creationism, the power of teachers unions, our overly litigious society, or the best way of selecting Supreme Court justices.

Let's start with the fact that Ohio is a state where Supreme Court justices are chosen in what are only superficially nonpartisan elections, and after nearly running the table in the last few cycles, Republicans now outnumber Democrats on the panel, 6-1. The ruling in favor of the district, and against the evangelical teacher, was 4-3.

The teacher, Mr. Freshwater, was a 20-year veteran of the district and, according to his personnel files, was considered the most effective science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School where his students routinely out-performed other teachers' students on the mandatory standardized tests.

But there had been issues dating as far back as 1994 about his teaching style, especially his penchant for interjecting his own personal religious beliefs into his lessons, particularly his dislike of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. He also adorned his classroom with religious books and artwork including a poster of President George W. Bush and Colin Powell praying together.

There were also other issues concerning his role as sponsor of the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes club where he was an active participant in activities, eschewing FCA's policy that it should be a student-led organization. And not to be forgotten was an incident where he zapped a student with a Tesla coil, leaving a mark on the kid's arm that was, depending on whom you asked, shaped either like a cross or an X.

But the kicker – at least as far as the court was concerned – was his insistence on keeping a Bible on his desk, despite repeated instructions by administrators to remove it and keep it out of view during class, an act that the court agreed could justify his being fired for insubordination.

Most of the religious-based issues had festered for years, but they came to a boiling point with the zapping incident in 2007, which prompted that student's parents to lodge a formal complaint. They also filed lawsuits against Freshwater and the school district, ultimately collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

Freshwater appealed his firing to a “referee,” which is part of the state's due process system for tenured teachers. According to the court's recap of events, the hearings involved 38 days of testimony, spread out over 21 months, with more than 80 witnesses and exhibits, and more than 6,000 pages of transcripts, not to mention an untold amount of attorney fees.

At the end of that process, the referee upheld two of the school board's four reasons for firing Freshwater: failure to adhere to the district's established curriculum and his refusal to obey orders. The referee rejected the Tesla coil incident and his FCA activities as grounds for dismissal.

The Supreme Court, however, found the insubordination charge — which centered on books he had checked out from the library — to be sufficient grounds by itself, thus allowing them to side-step the constitutional question of whether prohibiting him from talking about creationism and intelligent design was a denial of free speech, or merely the enforcement of the school's curriculum.

So what should one make of all this?

Perhaps the best overall assessment was in the dissenting opinion of the court's most senior member, Justice Paul Pfeifer:

“This case illustrates the importance of leadership and the power of hysteria. This case should be a cautionary tale for other school boards, a case study of what not to do.”

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