There was a teacher in my high school, Mr. Johnson. I had him for Current Events class my senior year. He would sporadically stop class and call out “Pop quiz: Who’s Catholic?” Then, he’d point to each raised hand and say, “Plus five, plus five, plus five…” He was joking about giving out this Catholic extra credit. Sorta kinda. But he’d give the football players exemptions from homework assignments if they played a good game-for real, and let everybody know about it. He had a mustache and wore polo shirts tucked in too tight. He was one of the “cool” teachers in the school and very popular with the kids. I disliked him strongly, as did a couple of my friends, and we’d talk abut how messed up it was that he taught the way he did. We mentioned this to him, in more polite language, but he’d blow it off, saying everybody knew he was just kidding around. This, despite the very noticeable cross he wore around his neck. Thinking back on it, we’ve wondered whether we should have made a bigger stink, maybe actually have tried to get the guy fired. Ethically, probably yes. Practically, probably no. As this crazy case being played out in Ohio illustrates, it might have been impossible.
In a public high school in a town called Mount Vernon (That’s “Bible-Learnin'” Mount Vernon, in Ohio, as opposed to its money-earnin’ sister city here in New York), a man named John Freshwater taught creationism and discredited evolution in science class, healed a student by asking Satan to leave him and (“allegedly”) burned crosses into students’ arms with a Tesla coil. (The school board has since settled with the burned student’s family for $121,000-actually, “$5,500 to the family and $115,500 to the family’s lawyers.” The family is also suing Freshwater.)
He also handed out surveys asking students about their religious beliefs, directed them to a Christian website called Answers in Genesis, prayed on school grounds and refuse to remove religious materials on display in his room when his principal asked.
“I cannot with a clear conscience follow a directive that makes religion and the religious viewpoint any less credible by those who deem themselves more enlightened,” said Freshwater, to the Columbus Dispatch, way back in April of 2008.
Understandably, that June, the school board voted to fire him.
“Under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to protect against the establishment of religion in the schools,” the board said in a statement. “As a public school system the district cannot teach, promote or favor any religion or religious beliefs.”
But it has not been easy. Teachers in Mount Vernon are legally entitled to a pre-termination hearing, after which an independent referee will make a recommendation to the school. Freshwater asked for one, and it has been going on for more than a year and a half now. (He is on unpaid leave pending the outcome. He is also suing the school board himself, of course.)
Mount Vernon is a very devout town. Freshwater is popular with students-some of whom rallied to his defense by participating in a “bring your Bible to school” day and wearing T-shirts that said, “I support Mr. Freshwater-God.” Many adults in the community, too, are angry at the decision-including an unfortunately named group calling itself “The Minutemen,” formed by Freshwater’s friends. They have been showing up to board meetings to make their feelings known. Signs have been put up on roads around town threatening to get rid of the school board.
Complicating things, in his countersuit against the school board, Freshwater also named the school board’s lawyer, as a matter of intimidation.
“Would our government ask a follower of Islam to remove her burqa in order to teach school?” Freshwater wrote in a statement last year. “Would we ask a science teacher to remove The Origin of Species from his desk merely because the origin of man has never been proven?”
No, not in a class that teaches science, we would not, actually.