Mount Vernon teacher John Freshwater is in hot water because he teaches religion a little bit too much in his eighth grade science classes. A former colleague says his superiors knew of Freshwater’s religious agenda, but have done little about it until recently.
Freshwater first hit the news several days ago when school officials told him to remove his Bible from clear view of his students. The teacher refused, prompting both a student rally supporting him and an advisory notice from the American Civil Liberties Union supporting school administrators. The religious Right seized the controversy as another attack on religion.
Then other details about Freshwater’s classroom behavior came to light. He keeps a stack of Bibles in his room to loan out to students. He passes out pro-creationist literature to counter scientific explanations of the Big Bang and evolution. He allegedly burned a cross on at least one student’s arm as part of a demonstration of electricity. He taught his classes the meaning of Good Friday and Easter.
Freshwater has had a religious agenda for some time. Quoting a former colleague, Retired middle school science teacher Jeff George, the Mount Vernon News reported yesterday:
George said there may be substance to other allegations that Freshwater used the classroom to advance his own personal beliefs. “The school administration has known for a long time that Freshwater was crossing the line, and he should have been fired a long time ago.”
George recalls several occasions when Freshwater “didn’t always stay on track with science. What he was teaching was not true, and there have been numerous complaints over the years.” (On more than one occasion, evaluations in Freshwater’s file indicate that Freshwater was directed to work more closely with George in following the course of study.)
George also remembers a time when a school principal specifically told Freshwater to stop distributing religious materials in class. Freshwater then, George said, numbered the religious items, and collected them at the end of the class period to make sure none would leave the classroom.
“He (Freshwater) was promoting a particular belief system,” George said, “and preached against other religions, not just Muslims or Jews or Hindus, but also any Christian denomination that was different from his.”
Freshwater is friends with a religious Right kook, Coach Dave Daubenmire, a former high school football coach in London, Ohio, with his own history of run-ins with his employers. After told he could no longer hold prayer sessions with his teams before games, “Coach Dave” quit, forming Pass the Salt Ministry and Minuteman United. Both espouse Christian dominionism, the belief that Christianity (their kind) should be the law and religion of the land. Reading Minuteman United’s brochure will give you a scary sense of its mission.
Daubenmire has his own radio program. Immediately after Freshwater’s Bible-on-the-desk issue, Daubenmire came to his defense, calling it a violation of Freshwater’s First Amendment (free speech) rights and an example of the “war against Christianity” by secular forces like the evil ACLU. Now that other allegations have come to light, Daubenmire is now spinning the news by accusing school officials of creating a “smoke screen” around their efforts to “ban the Bible.”
It’s not clear at this point whether Freshwater is a member of either of Daubenmire’s organizations, but it’s apparent he’s a fellow traveler. If he has in fact been pushing his special brand of Christianity on his students, Freshwater has been violating the Establishment clause of the First Amendment for a long time, with the implicit approval of his superiors.
As US citizens, teachers have constitutionally protected rights of free speech and worship. So Freshwater can say anything he likes and worship however he likes, outside the classroom. As a public schoolteacher, he (and his employers) have to also observe the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states that the government cannot establish, foster or espouse any one particular religion. Numerous court cases have created this understanding of the law, so it is hardly rocket science. Public school teachers can be religious; they can even have Bibles on their possession or in a desk drawer. They cannot legally teach any one kind of religion to their students, display religious artifacts (Freshwater at one point had the Ten Commandments on his classroom wall) or suggest that students must adopt any religion at all.
In a conservative Christian climate, such as exists in central Ohio, Freshwater’s milder religious indoctrination probably slipped by. His proselytizing apparently has now reached the point where even his hometown has become alarmed.
So, if he wants to teach kook Christianity to students, Freshwater needs to quit his job and go to work for a Christian school somewhere. He wants to use his current position as a bully pulpit, he either needs to shut up, do his job and be a science teacher, or be prepared to face the music.