Hearing begins for Mount Vernon teacher

Hearing begins for Mount Vernon teacher
who refused to remove Bible from desk - Man could be fired for teaching religion
By Alayna DeMartini- Columbus Dispatch - 10/2/2008 - original
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio -- Dozens of admirers surrounded the eighth-grade science teacher in the middle of the town square.

It was April, and the first of several rallies that John Freshwater and his supporters would hold to drive his point home: He would not remove his Bible from the desk of his public-school classroom. Mount Vernon school administrators had ordered him to do that, among other things.

"This is nothing short of another blatant attack on free-speech rights," he said.

That's how Freshwater and his supporters frame the issue: A veteran teacher is fighting for his right to keep his Bible on his desk.

But there's more to it, the school board said.

In December, a student reported waking up in pain the night after Freshwater used a high-voltage lab tool to burn a cross into his left arm. Photos taken by the boy's parents show red, raised dots, a mark that they said lasted for three to four weeks.

The manufacturer of the device, which is used to test gases in experiments, said it should never touch human skin. Now, the boy's parents are suing Freshwater and the school board.

Freshwater first told investigators he put X's -- not crosses -- on students. But he has since denied burning or branding any children.

He has filed a countersuit against the boy's family, claiming defamation and infliction of emotional distress. He also says the school board's allegations that he taught creationism and intelligent design and sought to discredit evolution are not true.

Freshwater is to have a chance to contest the allegations at a hearing on the school board's intention to fire him. Officials expect the hearing to run today through Friday and to resume on Oct. 28.

The controversy has stirred this town of 16,000 about 50 miles northeast of Columbus with emotional issues of church and state, religion and science.

Students carried Bibles to class last spring to support Freshwater.

Classmates of Arie Alvarado questioned her and a few other eighth-grade students who didn't take part.

"They were calling us atheists," Alvarado said. "I couldn't believe it. One day they're your friend, and the next day you're an atheist and they're completely ignoring you in the hallway."

Students and parents have described Freshwater as gregarious, but he recently has limited his remarks to prepared statements and flat denials of the accusations against him.

His supporters, however, have plenty to say. Freshwater's backers sent e-mails to Christians across Ohio, encouraging them to pack school-board meetings.

They started Bibleonthedesk.com, which details Freshwater's international church and missionary work. It calls for donations to pay Freshwater's legal fees. T-shirts for sale show a picture of Freshwater standing in a crowd speaking and include a quote attributed to God: I support Mr. Freshwater.

Freshwater taught science in Idaho for three years before he moved to Mount Vernon in 1987 and began teaching science. He also has worked as a park ranger at Salt Fork State Park in eastern Ohio and in Everglades National Park in Florida and has fought fires for the U.S. Forest Service.

Several of Freshwater's former students in Mount Vernon recalled that he seemed to care deeply about them, regularly greeted them at the door of his classroom and shook their hands.

"You can tell he's talking to you because he wants to, not because he has to," said Matthew Parks, 21. "There's energy in his voice."

Freshwater once showed his class a $20 bill and asked if anyone wanted it, Parks remembered. Then he crumpled it up and repeated the question. The value hadn't changed even though it was creased, he pointed out. Then he told his students that no matter how many issues they might be dealing with, he still could see their value.

Parks said he didn't recall Freshwater ever teaching creationism or intelligent design -- the idea that life is so complex that a higher being must have designed it.

But Joe Stuart remembered the day when Freshwater dumped Lego pieces in the classroom and then asked students: Could the bricks assemble themselves? He was describing the beginning of the world, said Stuart, 18.

Freshwater directed his students to AnswersinGenesis.com, a Christian Web site, for answers to their science questions, said Jessica Philemond, attorney for the family of the student who said Freshwater burned a cross on his arm. The Web site was founded by Ken Ham, author of the book The Lie: Evolution.

In 2003, Freshwater asked the Mount Vernon school board if he and other teachers could "critically examine" evolution in class. The school board said no.

"From that point on, John had a bull's-eye on him," said Don Matolyak, Freshwater's pastor.

The board has carried out a vendetta against Freshwater because he wanted to teach alternative views to evolution, and that offended school-board members who believe in evolution, Matolyak said.

Despite the school board's decision, Freshwater secretly continued teaching creationism and intelligent design, giving his students hand-outs and collecting them at the end of class, said David Millstone, attorney for the school board.

"I believe he's operated underground most of the time," Millstone said.

In 2006, a student's parent questioned why Freshwater was handing out Darwin's Theory of Evolution -- The Premise and the Problem.

Some of the handouts are likely to be introduced as evidence in Freshwater's appeals hearing. One is titled Dragon History Dinosaur Fossils -- Age-Old Debate.

"He has put his religious views above his duty to the students," said Dick Hoppe, a visiting biology professor at Kenyon College near Mount Vernon. "It looks to me like he was running what amounts to a private Christian school embedded in the public school."

An outside investigator found that Freshwater's former students frequently had to be retaught in high school what they were supposed to have learned in his eighth-grade class. One administrator said that, for 11 years, teachers and others in the community have complained that Freshwater preached his Christian beliefs in class and slammed scientific theories.

Freshwater and his defenders have called it a biased investigation.

Beginning in 2002, Ohio's 10th-grade science teachers were required to critically analyze evolution to explain how life began. That controversial requirement was removed in 2006.

But it never pertained to eighth-grade science classes, Millstone said, and teachers are not allowed to explain science using religious ideas.