By Eric Geller
In a 4-3 ruling issued on Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Ohio upheld the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education’s firing of middle-school science teacher John Freshwater on the grounds that “he was insubordinate,” ending a two-year-long legal battle that still failed to directly address the questions it raised about freedom of speech and religious liberty in public schools.
The court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, emphasized that Freshwater had ignored direct instructions from school officials to cease teaching creationism in his evolution lectures.
The Board of Education voted 4-1 to terminate Freshwater’s contract on Jan. 13, 2011. For almost a decade leading up to his termination, Freshwater had been embroiled in controversy over allegations that he had used religious materials, including teaching creationism, in his classes.
“Freshwater is fully entitled to an ardent faith in Jesus Christ and to interpret Biblical passages according to his faith,” O’Connor wrote. “But he was not entitled to ignore direct, lawful edicts of his superiors while in the workplace.”
After the Board of Education voted in 2011 to terminate Freshwater, he sued the district in the Knox County Common Pleas Court. That court reviewed the standards for initiating and concluding termination proceedings and found that Freshwater’s case met those standards. The Ohio Fifth District Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling, based on the principle that it could not “engage in what amounts to a substitution of judgment of the trial court.”
The Supreme Court of Ohio was Freshwater’s last chance at reversing his firing, but the Court decided against him after concluding that the Board “had good and just cause to terminate Freshwater’s contract.”
The Court’s verdict did not carry the decisive rejection of creationism in public schools that many evolution advocates had hoped to see. Indeed, while O’Connor spent several pages explaining why Freshwater’s public display of personal religious materials was protected under the First Amendment and did not constitute “any perceived state endorsement of religion,” her discussion of the creationism-evolution debate measured just over one page.
“We recognize that this case is driven by a far more powerful debate over the teaching of creationism and intelligent design alongside evolution,” O’Connor wrote in her brief treatment of the case’s scientific context.
As O’Connor explained, the judicial precedent for this issue is complicated. Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, “have held that teaching theories of creationism and intelligent design in public schools violates the Establishment Clause because they convey ﾑsupernatural causation of the natural world’ and therefore are inherently religious concepts.” But as O’Connor also observed, quoting a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, “teaching creationism is not prohibited in public schools as long as it is done ﾑwith the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.'”
The two justices who dissented from the court’s opinion maintained that creationism was not incompatible with a biological, evidence-based theory of the origins of life. Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski said that she was “disappointed” to read the dissent, equating it with “comparing Harry Potter’s magic to physics.”
Assistant Professor of Political Science Michelle Mood, who followed the case closely and has children enrolled in the school district, said she had been worried about the court siding with Freshwater based on the questions the justices asked during oral arguments.
“One could see that some of the judges bought into the idea that evolution is a controversial theory, and that it is important to encourage teachers to teach controversial subjects,” Mood said. “They also seemed to misunderstand the rights of individuals and the laws related to actions by public employees at their job.”
Mood worried about the impact that the dissenting justices’ words would have on the nationwide battle over science education. She said that Freshwater’s supporters “will love the details of the dissenting opinion and use that in many ways during this ongoing debate about education and public money and beliefs.”
Slonczewski said she shared this concern. “The dissenting opinions will encourage wealthy conservative groups to keep pushing creationism to whip up votes,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, because students who learn creationism are losing jobs, especially in medicine.”
Still, Slonczewski praised the Court’s majority opinion and said that it would “help Mount Vernon schools move forward for excellence in education.”
In an email to the Collegian, Mount Vernon City Schools Superintendent William Seder expressed a desire to move on from a controversial story that had dominated local media attention for many years.
“I understand that it was a difficult issue that divided the community and that is very unfortunate,” said Seder, who became superintendent in July. “The passage of the past two [school funding] levies seems to have shifted our focus towards students. Sometime[s] that which divides us can ultimately unite us and we feel good about the direction the district is moving.”