Freshwater Attempts To Use Appeal To Reopen Creationism Debate

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screencap of Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer during oral arguments

Last Wednesday, John Freshwater, the Mount Vernon middle school teacher fired for proselytizing to his science classes then refusing to stop doing it when he was warned, had his appeal heard before the Ohio Supreme Court. His lawyer attempted to use a routine employment appeal to reopen the debate on teaching creationism in the public schools. Although rulings aren’t signaled based on the questioning during the hearing, it was clear the school attorney, David Smith, got the aggressive part of the questioning.

[Rita] Dunaway argued that Freshwater was a dedicated and capable teacher who was merely pointing out problems with evolutionary theory, not preaching creationism or intelligent design, and that he was not insubordinate. Smith painted him as crossing the line into pushing his views onto students and ignoring policies keeping religion separate from the science curriculum.

“The school board has broad discretion to control curricula,” Dunaway said in opening the session, “But the United States Supreme Court has made it clear that when a board uses its authority to suppress a particular set of ideas, the courts should step in.”

She said pointing out controversial issues in evolution was simply following the policy of encouraging discussion of controversial issues. She denied that Freshwater used instruction to advance religion.

Smith barely began his summation when he was interrupted by Pfeifer and quizzed about exactly when the board decided to fire Freshwater, pointing to a short time period between the investigator’s report and the board voting to terminate.

Smith seemed to lose his way briefly when questioned about limits to academic freedom or freedom of speech for teachers.

He described curriculum as “government speech,” or, speech the government has paid for.

Ohio Supreme Court hears Freshwater case

Freshwater’s lawyer used the hearing to push a “teaching the controversy” argument common with the religious right. As read in the brief by the National Center for Science Education:

1. The Scientific Community Does Not Doubt the Validity of Evolution.

As an initial matter, Freshwater asserts that he “foster[ed] critical thinking” by
having his students “identify and discuss instances where textbook statements were subject to
intellectual and scientific debate” and by teaching them “evidence both for and against
evolution.” (App. Br. at 6, 8.) This manner of instruction implies that there is doubt within the
scientific community about the validity of evolutionary theory. There is none, and teaching
students that there is doubt where none exists serves no pedagogical purpose; rather, it is
detrimental to their science education.

Evolution is among the most well-tested theories known. The evidence for it is
overwhelming, and no credible alternative or competing scientific theory exists.

Amicus curiae by the National Center for Science Education

Freshwater’s defense – that he was fired to censor him – is probably the third or fourth defense he has used during the various appeals. He tried to file in Federal court claiming his 1st amendment rights were violated but that appeal was turned down in 2011. The latest attempt is a backdoor to trying to get a court to allow creationism into the public schools.

Here is a link to a video of the oral arguments held on 2/27/2013:

Case No. 2012-0613 John Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education

The blog Panda’s Thumb has more on the oral arguments as well as other posts about the Freshwater case. You can also check out the official court filings at the Ohio Supreme Court website.

There is no date set for a ruling but could take several months.

screencap of Rita Dunaway and David Smith
Rita Dunaway & David Smith – opposing lawyers during oral arguments on 02/27/2013

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