The job of a public school teacher is to instruct young people in certain subjects – perhaps math, science, history or English. The job of a religious leader is to offer information about theology and how to interact with God. There should be no overlap.
Yet, occasionally, a teacher will get it into his or head to start preaching in the classroom. Whenever this happens, controversy quickly follows.
In Mount Vernon, Ohio, science teacher John Freshwater is suing the school district, saying he was improperly fired. District officials say Freshwater preached in class, disparaged evolution and criticized gay people. He's also accused of using an electrostatic device to burn crosses into the arms of students. One child reportedly had blisters for several days.
The Mount Vernon School Board took this matter seriously. When complaints were raised against Freshwater last year, the board investigated them.
The Columbus Dispatch reported, "The board announced last June that it intended to fire Freshwater for preaching his Christian beliefs about how the world began, discrediting evolution and deviating from the required science curriculum. An investigation initiated by the board found that Freshwater used a high-voltage lab tool to burn crosses into the arms of students and that he told them gays were sinners."
I don't think there's any doubt that Freshwater deserved to be fired. I wouldn't want my children encountering this individual in the classroom.
How will Freshwater's lawsuit fare?
If legal history is any guide, not too well. The federal courts have been very clear that public school teachers have no right to pray with students in class or use their positions to proselytize.
I've written about several of these cases over the years. The teachers always lose – as they should. Back in 1998, a teacher in the Bronx, N.Y., named Mildred Rosario began preaching to and praying with students in her fifth-grade classroom. Rosario was a Pentecostal Christian and laid hands on some of the kids. Her practices alarmed some of the students, who told their parents.
Rosario had been previously cited for absenteeism and poor job performance. This stunt was the last straw. She was fired. Religious Right groups worked feverishly to give her 15 minutes of fame. There was a press conference in Washington where several members of Congress spoke out with outraged comments. The inevitable lawsuit followed.
Rosario lost at the district court level in June of 2001. Her lawyers at the Rutherford Institute appealed, but she lost again one year later when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the lower court. (Interestingly, Sonia Sotomayor was one of the judges who sat on that panel.)
I'm all for teachers attending whatever house of worship they like during their free time. As far as I'm concerned, they can read the Bible, the Koran or L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics at home until their eyes fall out. But they need to keep their personal religious views out of the classroom.
It's my job to bring up my children in the religious or philosophical system that my wife and I have consciously adopted for our family. Public school officials have no right to interfere with that private family matter.
Sometimes people file lawsuits hoping to be offered a quick settlement. Pay them off and they'll drop the suit and go away. I don't know if that's what Freshwater has in mind, but I urge the Mount Vernon School Board to stand firm against him. The man has no case.