Judgment day
Judgment day
Case allows high court to uphold separation of church and state

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The American legal system is generous in the opportunities it gives those with grievances or who have been convicted of crimes to appeal and re-appeal their cases. Mount Vernon Middle School teacher John Freshwater has taken full advantage of that generosity and pushed his case all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The court now has the opportunity to confirm what an administrative hearing and two lower courts already have held: that Freshwater’s firing from his teaching job was justified and that he received due process.

In a 4-3 decision announced Thursday, the justices said that Freshwater can contest his firing based on two of the three legal arguments he presented. One is that his firing violates his free-speech and academic-freedom rights because the school district didn’t make clear what he was doing wrong.

The other is that firing him for having a Bible and religious posters in his classroom violates his free-speech rights and constitutes an impermissible hostility toward religion, which also would violate the First Amendment.

Through 38 days of testimony in an administrative hearing that dragged out over two years, involved 80 witnesses and cost the school district nearly $1 million, school officials presented a convincing case for why Freshwater, who was supposed to be teaching eighth-grade science, was terminated.

In 2003, he asked for permission to discuss creationism — the religious belief that the earth and its creatures were created in their present form directly by God — as an alternative theory to evolution.

School officials rightly said no, because creationism isn’t science, and the theory of evolution is the foundation underlying all of biological science. While there are scientific debates about the specific mechanisms of evolution, evolution itself is a scientific fact.

In the years after that, parents and others complained that Freshwater proselytized in class, continued to undermine evolution and created a display of religious items in his classroom. School officials told him to stick to the curriculum, which adheres to the overwhelming consensus of scientists, that the theory of evolution, backed by millennia of fossil records and genetics, explains the development of life on Earth.

The conflict escalated; Freshwater’s religious expressions became more overt, and in 2008 he was ordered to remove his Bible from his desk. He not only refused, but called a press conference to announce his defiance. This prompted the Board of Education to resolve to fire Freshwater; he exercised his right to a hearing before a referee.

Finally, in January 2011, the hearing officer ruled that Freshwater’s firing was justified. He since has been pursuing appeals through the courts.

Lower courts have spoken clearly: Freshwater violated the Constitution by using his position as a teacher to attempt to impart his religious beliefs.

Equally important, he failed his students, by presenting a religious belief as science, when it is nothing of the sort. Science, by definition, is the study of natural processes, not supernatural ones. Any theory that invokes supernatural explanations for natural phenomena is not science, it is religion, and therefore is inappropriate in a science class.

The Supreme Court can do public education a great service by upholding the right of school boards to insist that science classrooms be reserved for the teaching of science.