Teacher With Bible Divides Ohio Town
By IAN URBINA
Published: January 19, 2010
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio " Most people in this quiet all-American town describe themselves as devoutly Christian, but even here they are deeply divided over what should happen to John Freshwater.
Mr. Freshwater, an eighth-grade public school science teacher, is accused of burning a cross onto the arms of at least two students and teaching creationism, charges he says have been fabricated because he refused an order by his principal to remove a Bible from his desk.
After an investigation, school officials notified Mr. Freshwater in June 2008 of their intent to fire him, but he asked for a pre-termination hearing, which has lasted more than a year and cost the school board more than a half-million dollars.
The hearing is finally scheduled to end Friday, and a verdict on Mr. Freshwater’s fate is expected some months later. But the town " home to about 15,000 people, more than 30 churches and an evangelical university " remains split.
To some, Mr. Freshwater is a hero unfairly punished for standing up for his Christian beliefs. To others, he is a zealot who pushed those beliefs onto students.
“Freshwater’s supporters want to make this into a new and reverse version of the Scopes trial,” said David Millstone, the lawyer for the Mount Vernon Board of Education, referring to the Tennessee teacher tried in 1925 for teaching evolution. “We see this as a basic issue about students having a constitutional right to be free from religious indoctrination in the public schools.”
Mr. Freshwater, who declined to be interviewed, has said he did not mean to burn a cross on any student’s arm. Instead, he said he intended to leave a temporary X on the skin using a device called a Tesla coil during a science demonstration. He says he had done that, with no complaints, hundreds of times in his 21 years as a teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School.
In a radio interview in 2008, he said he had been a target for removal since 2003, when he proposed that the school board adopt a policy to teach evolution as theory, not proven scientific fact. “I ruffled some feathers,” he said.
Married and a father of three, Mr. Freshwater, 53, was popular among students, always willing to stay after school to tutor or listen to students who needed someone to talk to.
In testimony at the board hearing, his supporters said he had consistently received positive evaluations from superiors and won distinguished teacher awards at least twice.
But school officials and former colleagues presented a different picture.
One high school teacher said she consistently had to reteach evolution to Mr. Freshwater’s students because they did not master the basics. Another testified that Mr. Freshwater told his students they should not always take science as fact, citing as an example a study that posited the possibility of a gene for homosexuality.
“Science is wrong,” Mr. Freshwater was reported as saying, “because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin, and so anyone who is gay chooses to be gay and is therefore a sinner.”
A third teacher testified that Mr. Freshwater advised students to refer to the Bible for additional science research.
School officials said Mr. Freshwater’s science classroom was adorned with at least four copies of the Ten Commandments and several other posters that included verses from Scripture.
Mount Vernon is not a place accustomed to controversy and news media attention. It is proud of its wholesomeness. Wooden porches are adorned with American flags. A Civil War hero sits atop a tall obelisk in the center of the impeccably preserved town square. Tour guides brag about the Woodward Opera House, which is billed as the oldest freestanding opera theater in the country.
“The whole issue has been an embarrassment,” Ann Schnormeier said as she sat with 10 other women at a religious study meeting at First Congregational United Church of Christ near the center of town. She said her grandson, like many students, adored Mr. Freshwater.
“People have faith here in this town,” she said, “but Mr. Freshwater was crossing the line, and the school board has rules. There are laws, and he needs to leave his teaching position.”
Mr. Freshwater, who is currently suspended without pay, does not see things that way.
Last June, he filed a federal lawsuit against the school board seeking $1 million in damages, and in April 2008, he called a news conference at the town square to say that while he was willing to remove posters and other religious materials from his classroom " as instructed by the school board " he was drawing the line on removing his Bible.
The reaction was immediate.
Students held a “bring your Bible to school” day. Others started wearing T-shirts with “I support Mr. Freshwater " God” on the front. As the case dragged on, producing more than 5,000 pages of transcripts and more than 30 days of oral testimony, some Freshwater supporters vowed to broaden the fight.
Callers to local talk radio said that if Mr. Freshwater lost his job, they would look for indiscretions by other teachers and lobby for their removal.
Among those attending school board meetings were members of a local group called the Minutemen.
“This case woke a lot of people up around here,” said Dave Daubenmire, the founder of the group, which he named Minutemen because they “are a group of Christian guys who will show up on a minute’s notice to peacefully show support for their faith.”
In town, pastors are divided.
“I support Freshwater as a man of faith, but he is not supposed to be conveying these views in school,” said the Rev. R. Keith Stuart, pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ.
Miles away, Mr. Freshwater’s pastor, Don Matolyak, posited that the criticism of Mr. Freshwater was part of a larger trend toward bigotry against Christians.
“If he had a Koran on his desk, he’d be fine and no one would say a word to him,” Mr. Matolyak said. “If he had ‘Origin of Species’ on his desk, they would celebrate that.”
The family of Zachary Dennis, one of the two students who say they were branded by Mr. Freshwater, said they were eager for the matter to be closed. “We are religious people,” Jennifer Dennis, Zachary’s mother, said in an interview. “But we were offended when Mr. Freshwater burned a cross onto the arm of our child.”
After teachers and students criticized Zachary for speaking up, she said, the family sold its house and moved.
“We are Christians,” she said, “who practice our faith where it belongs, at church and in our home and, most importantly, outside the public classroom, where the law requires a separation of church and state.”