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

“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.

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.” 

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