Religious Freedom and Public Schools

by TFN

The Texas Freedom Network has been stepping up efforts to protect the right of families to direct the religious education of their own children as the religious right’s assault on that freedom moves into high gear. The latest example of the right’s increasingly aggressive campaign: an Ohio teacher has filed a lawsuit claiming that public school officials have violated his constitutional and civil rights by trying to stop him from promoting his religious beliefs in the classroom.

School officials in Mount Vernon, Ohio, took action against John Freshwater, an eighth-grade science teacher, after an investigation into a series of incidents. The Columbus Dispatch reports:

The board announced last June that it intended to fire Freshwater for preaching his Christian beliefs about how the world began, discrediting evolution and deviating from the required science curriculum. An investigation initiated by the board found that Freshwater used a high-voltage lab tool to burn crosses into the arms of students and that he told them gays were sinners.

The board suspended him without pay. A state administrative hearing on the board’s plan to fire Freshwater has been conducted on and off since October.

The controversy became public after he refused to remove a Bible from his desk.

The lawsuit denies charges that Freshwater violated district policy or taught creationism or intelligent design in his classroom and maintains that other teachers in the district have been permitted to keep Bibles on their desks.

Freshwater contends that the defendants violated his constitutional right to free speech, discriminated against him based on religion and defamed him through the investigative report.

Far-right pressure groups have tried to focus the Ohio issue on whether teachers may keep Bibles on their desks. They want the case to appear as one of religious discrimination against the teacher. Of course, the record shows that far more was involved there.

The Texas Freedom Network believes that the rights of teachers and students don’t stop at the schoolhouse door. Everyone who works in or attends public schools have the right to practice their faith as they see fit. But public school teachers, who act essentially as agents of government, have no business promoting their religious beliefs in the classroom. Doing so interferes with the right of parents to direct the religious education of their own children.

The Texas Freedom Network has strongly opposed efforts to undermine the religious freedom of students and their families. That’s why, for example, we opposed the absurdly named “Religious Viewpoints Nondiscrimination Act” the Texas Legislature passed in 2007. That law requires public schools to turn students assemblies into opportunities for other students to pray and evangelize before a captive audience.

That same year, TFN pushed — successfully — for key safeguards for religious freedom in legislation regarding public school Bible classes. Such courses are legal provided that they are truly academic studies of the Bible’s influence in history and literature. But TFN Education Fund reports found that such courses are often more about promoting the religious beliefs of those teaching the classes (sometimes even ministers from the local community). So TFN worked with lawmakers to require safeguards such as proper teacher training and specific curriculum standards for classes about the Bible.

The Texas State Board of Education, however, refused to support those safeguards. And, of course, state board members demanded that creationist arguments against evolution be included in public school science curriculum standards. Clearly, we have much work to do. We hope you will join our efforts.


Texas Freedom Network

It took years to convince the @TXSBOE to create a Mexican American studies course for the state's public schools. It's great to see school districts offering it to students.