A public school science teacher’s alleged religious activities have sparked controversy and litigation in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
John Freshwater, an eighth-grade science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School, has been accused of preaching Christianity while discussing the meaning of Good Friday and Easter and taking part in meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes by offering “healing” services, when he is supposed to simply monitor them. There have also been allegations that Freshwater teaches creationism.
Perhaps the most disturbing allegation was lodged by anonymous parents who charge that in December of 2007, Freshwater used an electronic device to burn a cross on the arms of two students.
In June, according to the Mount Vernon News, the Mount Vernon Board of Education voted unanimously to move toward termination of Freshwater’s teaching contract.
The board action came a week after a lawsuit was filed in federal district court by the family of a student asserting that Freshwater displayed the Ten Commandments, religious posters and Bible passages in his classroom and kept Bibles in the room. It also asserts that he lectured students about his own personal religious beliefs and has been teaching “intelligent design” since 2003.
According to The News, the lawsuit says Freshwater told students that information in the textbooks is wrong or not proven according to the Bible. He also allegedly uses code words in his classroom to inform his students when he disagrees with the classroom teachings based on his own religious beliefs.
The legal complaint also raises the matter of the crosses that were allegedly burned into students’ arms. It states that in December of 2007, Freshwater “burned an easily identifiable cross into the arms of at least two eighth-grade students with an electric device manufactured by Electro-Technic Products Inc.”
Separate portions of the lawsuit also question Freshwater’s role as an advisor to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It asserts that at one meeting, Freshwater distributed Bibles for the students to give to others, telling them, “they should disobey the law to further their own religion, even if it means going to jail.”
School officials ordered Freshwater to stop displaying Bibles in his classroom, leading to predictable claims from the Religious Right that his rights were being violated.
The News reported that Freshwater’s actions have divided the school community.
“You’re either for Mr. Freshwater or you’re against Mr. Freshwater,” said parent Beth Murdoch. “There’s no in between. In the kids’ minds, I think, it is just the Bible issue. And who is going to go against the Bible? Nobody. But it seems like the ‘Christians’ are using that as an excuse to gang up on the ‘atheists.’”
Murdoch reported that some students, wishing to support Freshwater, brought Bibles to school. One girl brought a Torah and was criticized.
“I don’t think people realize the depth of what’s going on between the students,” Murdoch said. “It’s a mob mentality right now. It’s peer pressure. To not wear a t-shirt and to not bring your Bible when they say bring your Bible and wear a T-shirt, you’re asking for trouble.”
Murdoch told the newspaper that one of her daughter’s friends wore a shirt to school that read, “I don’t need to wear a special t-shirt to be a Christian.” She said that student was reportedly pushed into the lockers and called a “stupid atheist b*tch.”