By Rob Boston
A long-running legal battle over religion in an Ohio public school appears to be drawing to a close.
The case involves a former eighth-grade science teacher named John Freshwater at Mount Vernon Middle School, who was accused of teaching creationism, posting religious signs in his classroom and engaging in other legally dubious activities.
Ironically, none of that stuff, as bad as it is, brought Freshwater under scrutiny. His downfall began after he used an electronic device called a Tesla coil to burn a small cross on a student’s arm.
The student, Zachary Dennis, showed the resulting welts on his arm to his parents, who were not pleased. I interviewed Jenifer Dennis in March. She told me that Freshwater had a habit of promoting conservative Christianity in his classroom – and that this was no secret.
The Dennis family is Christian, but they did not consider it part of Freshwater’s job to preach to their son.
“I think that we have a right as parents to teach our children the way we feel best regarding religion,” Dennis remarked. “I don’t think that should be the decision of a school teacher. Religion is important, but it belongs in church, a home or in a religious class. I don’t think any child should feel uncomfortable at school.”
The school launched an investigation of Freshwater, and he demanded a hearing. In the meantime, the Dennis family filed a civil lawsuit against Freshwater. In turn, Freshwater sued the school, claiming his religious freedom rights had been violated.
The Mount Vernon Newsreports today that a settlement is moving toward court approval. Under the terms of the agreement, the Dennis family (who actually moved out of town after the controversy came to light) will receive two payments totaling $450,000, part of which is an annuity for Zachary.
Freshwater had earlier dropped his lawsuit against the school. In August of 2009, the school, as part of an earlier settlement in the case, held a special workshop on church-state separation for teachers and administrators.
It’s quite a mess, and I can’t help but think that the whole thing could have been avoided.
People in the school and in the community had to have known what Freshwater was doing. During the controversy, one anonymous Mount Vernon teacher told The New York Times that she routinely had to re-instruct Freshwater’s students about evolution. He had apparently been teaching “intelligent design” since 2003.
Freshwater also surveyed students about their religious beliefs and distributed handouts to students attacking evolution. (Tellingly, he later lied about the surveys and wouldn’t let the students take the anti-evolution handouts home, always collecting them and storing them in the classroom.)
I don’t know why the school failed to crack down earlier. I do know this: The settlement payments are coming from the school’s insurance company, and my guess is that the school will be looking at significantly higher premiums for some time to come.
It’s an expensive lesson, to be sure.