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Christian Teacher Burned Crosses onto Students' Arms and Pushed Creationism -- Now He's Claims His "Free Speech" Was Violated?

A teacher who allegedly burned students and contested validity of evolutionary theory filed a lawsuit charging that his right to free speech and academic freedom had been violated.

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“Academic freedom was once the bedrock of American education,” Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead said in a media statement.  “That is no longer the state of affairs, as this case makes clear. What we need today are more teachers and school administrators who understand that young people don’t need to be indoctrinated. Rather, they need to be taught how to think for themselves.”

In a legal filing asking the Ohio Supreme Court to hear the case, Rutherford attorney R. Kelly Hamilton dismisses the cross burned onto Zachary Dennis’ arm. Hamilton calls the burn the result of a “common classroom science experiment” and blames school officials for responding to “community hysteria resulting from rumors about Freshwater.”

Jenifer Dennis begs to differ. In 2010, she told Church & State that her son’s arm was covered with welts and blisters.

“I compare it to a sunburn, curling iron burn or an oven burn,” she said. “It was a red raised area that was swollen…. He had trouble sleeping that night.”

She even shared a photo with Americans United that clearly showed the red marks on his arm. (See “Mr. Freshwater’s Classroom Crusade,” March 2010 Church & State.)

Today, Dennis says she is stunned that the case has taken so long to resolve. Yet she considers it a learning experience.

“It has taught me that what I once considered a given about individual rights is not in fact such an easy issue,” Dennis told Church & State. “I am dumbfounded that individuals still feel the need to inject personal beliefs to a captive audience of minors and that using an instrument such as a Tesla coil on a student’s flesh is an issue that I had to approach the school about to have the matter addressed.  

“If families do not confront wrongdoings,” she added, “they will continue to happen and the rights of all Americans will slowly be stripped away, leaving everyone to have to follow another’s beliefs or ideals.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State agrees with the Dennis family and is standing up for religious neutrality and sound science education in public schools. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the Ohio high court, the organization argues that Freshwater has no constitutional right to spread his religious views in the classroom.

AU’s brief was drafted by Richard B. Katskee, a former AU assistant legal director now in private practice with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Mayer Brown.

This subject is very familiar to Katskee. In 2005, he and allied attorneys put a stop to the teaching of intelligent design in Dover, Pa., public schools. The result was a landmark decision – Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District – by a federal judge that declared the teaching of  intelligent design to be a violation of the First Amendment. 

Katskee said he’s pleased to be defending church-state separation and sound science education again.

“It’s clear what’s going on here,” Katskee told Church & State. “The courts have struck down so-called ‘balanced treatment’ laws that require that creationism be taught alongside evolution in public school science classes. Backdoor efforts such as anti-evolution disclaimers pasted into science texts have also not fared well, so now the creationists are trying to walk right through the front door of the schoolhouse with a bogus ‘academic freedom’ argument.

“Say what you will about the creationists, they’re creative,” Katskee added. “One might say their strategies are evolving.”

Previous attempts by teachers who oppose evolution to secure an academic freedom right to teach creationism have not fared well in the courts. Two federal appeals courts and one state supreme court have ruled against teachers making this claim.

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