I live about 15 miles south of the town of Mount Vernon, OH and followed with interest the battle between Jr. High science teacher John Freshwater and the school board that ordered him to remove the 10 commandments and his bible from view in his classroom. Freshwater agreed to remove the 10 commandments from the wall, but refused to remove his bible from his desk, saying it infringed on his rights.
I started hearing about this in mid- April of ’08 and his termination hearing is set for Oct. 1st. A large number of Christians in the area have rallied around Freshwater, insisting that his rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion have been violated, and a lot of the students have held a “bring a bible to school day” to show their support. Meanwhile the school board issued a statement saying that they were not opposed to religion but were required to do this because "under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to protect against the establishment of religion in the schools. As a public school system the district cannot teach, promote or favor any religion or religious beliefs.”
Freshwater has filed a countersuit against the school district claiming emotional distress, lost time from work, and anxiety. He wants to have the case heard before a jury.
Most of this information has made the national news thanks to Fox News. What has not been widely reported is that the order to remove the bible came as a result of many complaints to the school board from parents of his students, because he was teaching creationism in class, making repeated religious references, and using an electric device to burn a cross into the arm of at least one student. The student reportedly has the scar to prove it.
The large fundamentalist Christian population in the area has come out in support of Freshwater because they believe that force-feeding Christian dogma to public school students is exactly what he should be doing. The kids that brought their bibles to school used the opportunity to mark non-bible–carriers as the enemy, and therefore legitimate targets for bullying and harassment. And lest you think that this really was about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, a Jewish boy who brought his Torah to school to show solidarity was also made a target of their righteous Christian hatred.
Supporters of the teacher staged rallies on the public square in Mount Vernon and came in large numbers to school meetings boisterously insisting that the separation of church and state was a myth and insisting that they were the victims of religious persecution. They also erected a large sign along the main route into town that read, “If the bible goes the school board should follow.”
As the summer wore on fewer and fewer people attended the rallies and a few of the people who agreed with the school board’s decision could be heard above the din, but the fundies still just didn’t get it. The message is that the separation of church and state isn’t a myth and every court case that used the myth defense has lost, and sometimes that loss cost big bucks. Just ask the Dover, PA board about the 2 million dollar hole in their budget. Furthermore we have the documents from the founding fathers that state that the U.S. is a secular nation that favors no particular religion. Heck, Jefferson coined the phrase “separation of church and state” while clarifying the intent of the first amendment to assure Connecticut Baptists that the Congregationalist majority couldn’t legislate them out of existence.
Another argument against Freshwater that I never heard is that he was hired to teach science to middleschoolers and if he was doing something other than that during class time, then he wasn’t doing the job he was hired to do. Who among us can get away with doing whatever we want during work hours without it having some negative ramifications. The only reason he got away with it for so long is that Christianity has special status in this area. If Freshwater had spent class time teaching French lessons instead of science, he’d have been gone long ago, but you don’t want to piss off the Big Guy upstairs or his huge fundamentalist following that could vote you out of office.
The biggest losers in this mess are the kids. Almost everything I have read has addressed whether or not John Freshwater is a victim and most writers seem to have forgotten that this whole donnybrook played out in a middle school full of about 1000 students. Shouldn’t the highest priorities of a school and its supporters be education, welfare of all the students and a safe, healthy learning environment? Why have these matters been largely overlooked in the discussion?
Freshwater had been allowed to teach at that school for 20 years in spite of similar complaints throughout his career. Granted, Mount Vernon’s large, vocal, right-wing evangelical population must be very intimidating, but 20 years is a very long time to sweep problems under the rug and hope they will go away. Is it any wonder that US science education ranks around 24th in the world, behind even war-torn, third-worldish Sri Lanka? Students receive science lessons watered down to avoid offence or where a teacher’s personal agenda takes precedence over facts. They take this diluted information home where they are assured by parents and clergy that their science education is largely invalid and the facts are not to be trusted. When they leave school they are only prepared for becoming Amish.
If these youngsters are not learning anything in school they should at least be in a safe environment. Junior High students almost universally reflect the religion of their parents and they don’t really get a choice in the matter. The adults in the school should be aware of that and protect these students but most teachers in Mount Vernon have been raised to believe that their religion is right and good and all others are wrong and bad. I’m sure if Freshwater had been espousing a non-Christian religion, he’d have been thrown out so fast his shadow couldn’t keep up. Heck, if he’d been promoting Islam he’d be in Guantanamo by now.
I saved the most important point for last. John Freshwater intentionaly injured a student! He asked for volunteers for an electrical demonstration and then used a device like an improvised branding iron to burn a cross shape into the arm of one of his students! I can’t understand why the community didn’t rise up with pitchforks and torches and come after him like peasants storming Frankenstein’s castle. This man shouldn’t be awaiting a decision from the school board, he should be in prison for child abuse and assalt and battery. Oh, but wait. This doesn’t count as a bad thing because he was doing God’s work. If the child was a godless infidel, it probably would have been OK to drive a stake through the evil kid’s heart, as long as he didn’t get any blood on the bible on his desk.