Freshwater: Ohio Supreme Court affirms his termination

By a narrow 4-3 vote, the Ohio Supreme Court today affirmed (pdf) the termination of John Freshwater as a science teacher in the Mt. Vernon, Ohio, city schools. That brings to an end more than 2,000 days of administrative hearings and court proceedings in the case. In her opinion for the majority, Chief Justice O’Connor concluded that

After detailed review of the voluminous record in this case, we hold that the court of appeals did not err in affirming the termination. The trial court properly found that the record supports, by clear and convincing evidence, Freshwater’s termination for insubordination in failing to comply with orders to remove religious materials from his classroom. Accordingly, based on our resolution of this threshold issue, we need not reach the constitutional issue of whether Freshwater impermissibly imposed his religious beliefs in his classroom. We affirm the judgment of the court of appeals because there was ample evidence of insubordination to justify the termination decision.

I have a few comments on the decision below the fold. There’s a comprehensive story on the decision at Court News Ohio.

The case as presented to the Supreme Court was a hybrid, mixing employment law with a (putative) First Amendment case. The Court purposefully avoided the constitutional issue, focusing just on the employment law issue and in particular on the finding of insubordination by the administrative hearing referee. It found that while in keeping his personal Bible on his desk Freshwater was not insubordinate, adding two religious books, “Jesus of Nazareth” and an Oxford Bible, subsequent to having been instructed to take down religious displays, was insubordination. The Court concluded

{¶ 99} Here, we need not decide whether Freshwater acted with a permissible or impermissible intent because we hold that he was insubordinate, and his termination can be justified on that basis alone. Freshwater is fully entitled to an ardent faith in Jesus Christ and to interpret Biblical passages according to his faith. But he was not entitled to ignore direct, lawful edicts of his superiors while in the workplace.

The dissents are interesting. Judge Pfeifer, who asked several hostile questions during oral arguments, claimed that

Justice O’Donnell’s well-reasoned dissent addresses the [academic freedom] issue, but goes unrebutted. In short, the majority shrinks from the chance to be a Supreme Court. The lead opinion cobbles together the piddling other claims of supposed insubordination, and, sitting as Supreme School Board, the majority declares the matter closed. In a case bounding with arrogance and cowardice, the lead opinion fits right in.

And while I don’t know, it’s tempting to speculate that Pfeifer has some personal animus toward the hearing referee:

{¶ 139} This court accepted jurisdiction in this case presumably to speak to the important issues of the Establishment Clause, academic freedom, and how schools may approach educating children about the scientific theories of evolution, which may directly clash with religious teachings of creation to which many children have been exposed at home and at church. Instead this court sidesteps all of the difficult issues presented in the case leaving the resolution of all these heady matters in the hands of a lone referee. Ironically, the lead opinion in this case proves the existence of God. Apparently, he’s an R.C. 3319.16 referee from Shelby.

Shelby, referee Shepherd’s home base, is one county over from Pfeifer’s home county.

O’Donnell bought Freshwater’s claim that “critical analysis of evolution” is a valid pedagogical approach:

{¶ 168} And when Freshwater proposed changing the curriculum in 2003 to adopt an Objective Origins Science Policy, his proposal sought only to “[e]ncourage the presentation of scientific evidence regarding the origins of life and its diversity objectively and without religious, naturalistic, or philosophic bias or assumption.” (Emphasis added.) As Freshwater explained, he meant “to take a tenth grade standard and put it down to the eighth grade standard to critically analyze evolution.” Like the tenth grade standard, his proposal distinguished the secular method of critically examining evolution from teaching intelligent design, and Freshwater confirmed that he did not intend that the proposed standard permit the teaching of religious concepts in science class.

There’s more: read it for yourself.

Personal note: This brings to an end my immersion in this case. From when it started, way back in 2002 when Freshwater first offered the Intelligent Design Network’s “Objective Origins Science Policy,” to today, I’ve written on the order of 300,000 words on the case. Nearly a million dollars of school district money has been spent, countless hours of school district personnel’s time has been wasted, and a whole lot of community discord has been generated. What a waste.

And this is a small irony: a few minutes ago, as I was writing this post, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses appeared at my door. I was courteous, but it was a strain.