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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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In 1987, Ray Webster, a junior high school social studies teacher in Illinois, sued the district after he was told to stop proselytizing in class, including teaching creationism. In court, Webster argued that he had a First Amendment right to determine his own curriculum and that he had to discuss creationism to provide balance in the classroom.

A district court ruled against Webster, and the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in Webster v. New Lenox School District.

Seven years later, a California biology teacher named John E. Peloza sued his school district after officials refused to allow him to teach creationism.

Peloza, who, like Freshwater, received representation from the Rutherford Institute, argued in court that school policies violated his right to free speech and freedom of religion. He also asserted that the school had endorsed a view of “evolutionism” that was a component of the “religion of secular humanism.”

Peloza’s claims did not fare well in court. He lost at the district level, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed that ruling. Rutherford attorneys took the Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear it.

In 1999, a high school science and math teacher in Minnesota, Rodney LeVake, sued his school district in state court after he was denied permission to teach creationism alongside evolution. The case, LeVake v. Independent School District #656, went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, with LeVake losing at every level.

Critics of the academic freedom argument say results like this aren’t surprising. They point out that if public school teachers had an unfettered right to ignore the accepted curriculum and teach whatever they wanted, classroom chaos would soon follow.

The National Center for Science Education, a California-based organization that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools, has been following the Freshwater case closely.

“If Freshwater had his way, teachers could present any nonsense they wanted under the shield of ‘academic freedom’ – and schools would be powerless to stop them from mis-educating their students,” Glenn Branch, deputy director of the organization, told Church & State.

As Freshwater’s appeal lurches toward what will probably be its final round, the Dennis family is watching developments from their new community. Zachary, now 18, is a freshman at a university in Pennsylvania.

“It is unfortunate that this happened to him in 8th grade when he was 13 years old, and Mr. Freshwater is still making this an issue even though this case has been reject­ed four different times,” Dennis said.

She added, “There are so many different religions and different views of each religion that I do not feel a public school has the right to allow teachers to insert their own personal beliefs into their curriculum.

“This should be the choice of parents and guardians,” Dennis concluded. “They are the ones to guide their children spiritually, no matter what religion that may be. This is a private family and individual choice, and when this is breached the rights of those parents and guardians are taken away.” 

Rob Boston is director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. His latest book is "Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn't Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do."

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