comments_image Comments

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.


Jenifer and Steve Dennis enjoyed living in Mount Vernon, Ohio, a city of about 16,000 people in the center of the state, but they no longer reside there. After an incident in 2007, they stopped feeling welcome.

The Dennis family’s problems began one day when their son Zachary, then 13, showed them some marks on his arm. The red burns were in the shape of a cross, and Zachary told his parents that a science teacher named John Freshwater was responsible for them. Freshwater had made the mark with an electronic device called a Tesla coil. 

It soon came to light that Zachary wasn’t the only student who had been burned. While investigating the matter, school officials soon uncovered a host of problems in Freshwater’s classroom.

It turned out that Freshwater, who in 2003 had publicly attacked the school district for mandating that evolution be taught, had been pushing “intelligent design” – a variant of creationism – in class and distributing materials designed to cast doubt on the validity of evolution.

The investigation revealed that Freshwater had put religious posters in his classroom, asked students questions about their religious beliefs and the depth of their commitment and even offered “healing” services at meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He had also distributed “work sheets” to students that undermined evolution (but, interestingly, hadn’t let students take the materials home where parents might see them).

In June of 2008, education officials told Freshwater he was being fired. He refused to go quietly, at first demanding a hearing before the school board and, when that failed, asking for an administrative hearing.

That also went against him, so Freshwater filed a lawsuit charging that his right to free speech and academic freedom had been violated.

The community quickly became polarized over the matter, and every twist of the case dominated the local news. The Dennis family decided that they had had enough. They moved out of town and didn’t look back.

“Although Mount Vernon has many positive attributes and we still spend time there,” Jenifer Dennis said, “we are extremely fortunate to have found a warm and welcoming community in an adjacent county that we’ve now become a part of. It is a community that is accepting of all ideas, thoughts and people from all walks of life and our family is now a part of it, so we haven’t thought about moving back to Mount Vernon.”

It may seem hard to believe, but five years later the Freshwater legal saga is still dragging on. Two Ohio courts ruled against the maverick teacher, but in a move that surprised many observers, the Ohio Supreme Court in July announced that it will hear an appeal ofFreshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education. Oral arguments will take place soon.

At the time Freshwater was let go, his antics were growing tiresome to many in the school. One anonymous teacher told The New York Times that she routinely had to re-instruct Freshwater’s students in evolution because they had not been taught the basics of the theory.

But Freshwater has supporters in the community – and they’ve made a lot of noise. Anchored in the Trinity Worship Center, an Assemblies of God congregation in Mount Vernon, Freshwater’s backers regularly attended school board meetings and launched supportive websites. They even rallied sympathetic students on his behalf in 2008 by asking youngsters to carry Bibles to school and wear pro-Freshwater t-shirts.

Freshwater’s appeal is being handled by the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based legal group that asserts in court papers that the teacher’s academic freedom rights have been violated.

See more stories tagged with: