The Ohio Supreme Court this week agreed to hear the appeal of a fired public school science teacher who kept a Bible on his desk and was accused of preaching religious beliefs in class.
The Mount Vernon School Board dismissed John Freshwater after investigators reported that he preached Christian beliefs in class when discussing topics such as evolution and homosexuality, and was insubordinate in failing to remove the Bible from his classroom.
The court’s 4-3 decision to hear Freshwater’s appeal of his firing sets the stage for written and oral arguments before the court later this year.
The court said Freshwater can argue that it is unconstitutional to fire someone without clear guidance on what teaching materials or methods are acceptable. Freshwater also can argue that it is unconstitutional to fire someone over the mere presence of a religious text like the Bible in the classroom.
Two lower courts previously upheld the dismissal.
Freshwater argued that leaving those lower-court decisions in place would allow school boards to fire any teacher who includes “additional, age-appropriate information” to broaden students’ understanding of the curriculum.
The outcome of the case “holds significant implications for teachers’ rights of free speech, free exercise, and equal protection under the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution,” Freshwater’s attorney argued in an April court filing.
Mount Vernon officials, in asking the court not to take the appeal, said the case does not raise major constitutional questions but is rather a “run-of-the-mill” case about administrative discipline.
“This case is so fact-specific that it does not create an issue of public or great general interest because it would not provide any meaningful guidance to school boards, teachers or other courts,” the board’s attorneys argued in May.
The school board in the community about 40 miles northeast of Columbus first tried to dismiss Freshwater in 2008.
Freshwater appealed to an outside referee, a state hearing officer, utilizing a right of teachers facing firing in Ohio. The hearing officer recommended in January that Freshwater’s contract be terminated, and the school board formally fired him within days.
Freshwater also was accused of using a science tool to burn students’ arms with the image of a cross, but that allegation was resolved and was not a factor in his firing.