Religious Freedom and Public Schools

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.

9 thoughts on “Religious Freedom and Public Schools

  1. The situation with the Ohio school teacher is most unfortunate, and it calls for something that I plan to espouse in certain venues over the next several years.

    As Americans, our constitutional rights are among our most precious posessions. I think most of us would rate them well above our homes, cars, and jewelry. If someone burns down our house or steals our car or jewelry, the law sets stiff prison sentences for that person. It should be the same with our constitutional rights—if we truly do value them so highly. The federal courts have ruled until they are blue in the face that actions like those allegedly committed by this Ohio teacher were a violation of the constitutional rights of children and their parents. Given the number of past court rulings and their contents, it is clear that violations such as this can be nothing else but premeditated and willfull violations today.

    Therefore, for those who premeditatedly and willfully violate a person’s constitutional rights in the face of a mountain of settled law, I support a mandatory 10 year sentence (without chance of parol) in a federal prison for each cited offense—offenses being assessed serially rather than concurrently. That’s how I feel about. I do not think it is cute. I do not think it is a laughing matter. I do not think it is just good-natured culture war fun to pull a stunt like this in a public school classroom. I am serious about this.

  2. Freshwater burned a student during a “demonstration” in his Science class. The student in question had, apparently, been outspoken against Freshwater’s presentation of creationism in the science class.

    Freshwater’s claims of “freedom of speech” are spurious. He’s a government employee teaching religion in a public school. He also assaulted a child, for which there is a separate civil suit pending.

    However, from what I’ve read about this case it’s clear that lax administration is a root cause in the problems the school district is facing now.

  3. You can follow this case at The Panda’s Thumb ( They have a running commentary about avery day of the testimony. Sorry I don’t have a direct link but you can search the archives.

  4. This guy was using a Tesla coil to burn students.

    This isn’t about religion, though it appears his animosity to students and refusal to teach the curriculum was fueled by his odd beliefs.

    How badly must a teacher injure a student physically before we say “enough?” How many students must be harmed before somebody says “fire him?”

    Were this guy a student in most Texas schools, he’d have been out on his ear on the no-tolerance of injury standard. Were he a teach in most Texas schools, the local authorities probably would have had to protect him from local parents.

    How much mayhem do Christians get to commit? Why do we allow Christians to harm more people than anyone else? (Maybe my membership in my local congregation is better protection from firing than membership in NEA . . .).

    See these posts:
    “Torturing children, the Constitution, and a teacher’s duty to protect children”
    “The Firing of John Freshwater”

  5. From one of Darrells links:

    “…a quarter of the teachers also reported spending at least some time teaching about creationism or intelligent design. Of these, 48 percent — about 12.5 percent of the total survey — said they taught it as a “valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species”.

    This 12.5 percent is actually pretty much coincident with the number of really hard core Christian Neo-Fundamentalists that are believed to be out there in the general American population, based on polls that I have seen in the past. If you will recall the many past polls used to dipstick the popularity of the Bush administration and its policies, about 13 percent of the population in every poll ALWAYS thought he was the most wonderful person to ever walk the Earth since Jesus. I doubt this group could have been swayed even if “W” were found to be haviing sex with his daughters.

    However, I guess the troubling thing to me is this. If you take 12.5 percent of a given total teacher population in any school district, and find that that 12.5 percent are hard core Christian Neo-fundamentalist in character, what it really means is that most likely every one of them to the last man or woman is probably functioning as Mr. Freshwater is alleged to have functioned in the science classroom. It is just happening under the radar. Now that is scary!!!

  6. Charles: Yep, it’s scary. I smell a new Dark Ages coming, a new theocracy: the Christian United States of America. Christianity’s answer to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Maybe within my lifetime. Nothing drastic will happen overnight, of course; it will arrive incrementally. Little by little, a new Inquisition will target Muslims, atheists, pagans, Wiccans, first, then expand to all non-Christians such as Jews & Buddhists. Non-Christians will be coerced at first, then discriminated against, then persecuted. After the Neo-fundie masters have completed whatever they plan to do to or with non-Christians, they will then start selecting other Christians for questioning to make sure all Christians are of the proper persuasion. This competition will produce power struggles and wars, much like that seen in Europe when Protestants and Catholics were competing for secular power.

    Then, at some future date when people are sick and tired of religion and religious wars, a new Age of Enlightenment will arrive.

    History repeats itself.

    Back to the original topic at hand: This guy Freshwater sounds like some kind of wacko Christian-style Stanley Milgram social psychology experimenter. Freshwater’s students may require years of therapy to undo the damage he has done to them. (And who will PAY for that therapy? Freshwater? I doubt it!)

    The thing I always come back to is this: How would Christian parents of a public school child feel about someone of a different faith teaching HIS/HER religion to that child?

  7. Freshwater’s actions are hidious, completely inexcusable and he shouild be drummed out of teaching since his meritless motives appear transparent and the civil suits that could follow could seal him off with finacial ruin. But we can never be sure; so much depends on the legislative and juducial influence by the fundos. And we have to be careful about calling the primitive fundos Christian. There is no uniformed definition for that term since there are over 350 denominations under the christian clasification all of which originated because of lack of agreeement sufficient to require starting a new church. Even in the first century there was great diversity of belief among “Christians.” Many of todays extremeists are not only creationists but are also literalists and most are apocolyptic( every generation has had the end time group and believe that Jesus will be returning acting as the son of man in charge of judgement) Jesus did preach that message originally and apparently expected God’s Kingdom to come during his lifetime, howver he was wrong and so was Paul in his ministry. Most denominations have occured because of wanting to be more “biblical,” and if there ever was a guide book more confusing and contridictory it might be the Koran or the book of Morman. But, there are Christions who are reasonable in their acceptance of the bible as being contextual, and allegorical and certainly not scientific. The next few years may show us if there are enough of these to combat the fundos who are definitely out to capture our educational, legislative and judicial system.

  8. Well, actually, there is a definition of a Christian. And the definition is found right in the gospel of Mark:

    Mark 16:17-18: And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

    Wait! It gets even more complicated:

    Matthew 7:22-23: “….Lord, Lord… have we not…in they name cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

    Jesus said his followers would be able to do these things….He asserted that those who believe will have these signs. Yet, the masses of Christians do not have these signs. Taken to its strange conclusion, we could assume that there are no Christians who believe as Jesus required. It is of interest to know that even having these signs and using Jesus’ name does not automatically make a person beloved by Jesus. Such a person may even be evil, in Jesus’ own estimation.

    Above text taken from the book Judaism’s Truth Answers The Missionaries by Beth Moshe.

  9. having a bible on the desk is one thing, but branding crosses into students is another. the christian right keeps picking pathetic losers for posterboys.