Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Freshwater Firing

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the firing of John Freshwater by a 4-3 vote that avoided all of the important constitutional questions in the case and ruled strictly on the basis of Freshwater’s insubordination after being ordered to remove religious material from his classroom.

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…

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.

Freshwater and his defenders continue to claim that the case was all about whether he could have a Bible on his desk. The Rutherford Institute, which took over his defense after the initial ruling, sent out an email this morning that was titled “Ohio Supreme Court Affirms Science Teacher’s Right to Keep Personal Bible on Desk.” But that is not what the case was ever about. It was about the innumerable ways that he used his position as a teacher to proselytize.

Freshwater tried a decade ago to get the school board to start teaching Intelligent Design in science classrooms. When they rejected that proposal, he simply began using handouts full of creationist nonsense to achieve his goal. He also put up posters in his classroom with Bible verses on them. For 15 years, the school had to tell him repeatedly to stop doing so and, when it came out that he had burned a cross into a student’s arm with a Tesla coil, they finally had enough. Burning the kid’s arm — intentionally — was more than enough to justify his firing.

You can read the full ruling here.

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  • Mr Ed

    How is he not a felon for the assault of a child in his care? That alone should have resulted in agreement that he could not be around children unsupervised.

  • Matt G

    And the total cost of this, in money and time wasted, is….?

  • So why were there three dissenting votes? Was there a dissenting opinion?

  • raven

    It cost the school system over $1 million to get rid of him.

    How is he not a felon for the assault of a child in his care?

    The Dennis family had to move out of the district because the fundie xians were harassing them. They also sued the school and their insurance company paid them off.

    For anyone interested, Pandasthumb. org has been following this and there is another RB Hoppe post up from yesterday.

  • In answer to my own question: the one dissenting opinion simply pretends it was all about the Bible on the teacher’s desk, in total willful ignorance of all the other instances of insubordination described in the ruling in which the dissent appears.

    Can a judge be impeached for such blatant disregard for reality? I guess it can’t be called perjury, since (AFAIK) judges aren’t under the same oaths as witnesses.

  • raven

    So why were there three dissenting votes? Was there a dissenting opinion?

    Freshwater: Ohio Supreme Court affirms his termination

    By Richard B. Hoppe on November 19, 2013 10:11 AM| 61 Comments (new)

    At pandasthumb. org.

    The short answer is that a lot of the opinions are just bizarre and obviously wrong. It’s a fundie xian thing.

    Hitchens Rule applies. Religion poisons everything.

  • Oh, and the dissenting opinion cites an article in a local newspaper. Oh well, I guess we should be glad he didn’t cite a Faux News report…

  • eric


    But that [bible on desk] is not what the case was ever about. It was about the innumerable ways that he used his position as a teacher to proselytize.

    Sadly, however, the majority ignored the question of whether he was proselytizing. Yeah, they mention the creationist materials he handed out and then collected back. But that’s not what they ruled on.


    the one dissenting opinion simply pretends it was all about the Bible on the teacher’s desk,

    There were two dissenting opinions. The second one starts on page 49.

    IMO, neither of the dissenting opinions wanted the case to be ‘all about’ the bible on the desk. The way I read it, they were both fairly chomping at the bit to expand Freshwater’s rights to teach creationism in class. The first one basically calls the majority cowards for not taking up the costitutional issue, and the second one has an entire section about how he (Freshwater) wasn’t given enough academic freedom.

  • beergoggles

    The second dissenting opinion is just blind to facts – citing free speech and the academic freedom of teachers to use their methods of covering the curriculum. And then it explains away the proselytizing by saying it was sporadic and interspersed over such a long duration that it was rare.

  • eric

    Errr…just FYI; in case the p49 dissent was the one you were referring to, the first dissent begins on the bottom of p35.

  • raven

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

    O’Donnell: {¶ 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.

    O’Donnell ignored the facts. Completely. He just rewrote history.

    Freshwater was teaching straight YEC creationism. Using materials from AIG among other places. He was a science teacher. And he taught that you can’t trust science because it has been wrong before.

    Creationism isn’t science. It isn’t even xianity. It’s a belief of some but not all xian cults.

  • raven

    AFAWK, the fundies just cheered Freshwater on while he automartyred himself. And then forgot about him.

    Fundie xians love their martyrs. And the best martyrs, of course, are…someone else. They don’t want to be martyrs, they want to watch them.

    I suppose now he could make a good living on the fundie xian church circuit detailing his automartyrdom and reflecting their hates back to them. That is what all the fundie leaders do and some are hundreds millionaires and one is a billionaire (Robertson).

    Does the world really need an instruction manual on how to be a xian auto-martyr and why it is a good idea, though?

  • gshelley

    In his dissent, O’Donnell argued Freshwater had been singled out by the school district for his willingness “to challenge students in his science classes to think critically about evolutionary theory and to permit them to discuss intelligent design and to debate creationism in connection with the presentation of the prescribed curriculum on evolution.”

    That seems stunningly dishonest to me

  • D. C. Sessions

    Can a judge be impeached for such blatant disregard for reality?

    Well, he can be voted out of office. Which might not quite work the way you want, but might explain the way he voted.

  • Ben P

    So why were there three dissenting votes? Was there a dissenting opinion?

    Here’s the opinion


    My reactions on reading it:

    – Holy crap, the admin hearings had 38 days of testimony and 70 witnesses? That’s obscene. That’s a 7 week trial. This thing cost someone a lot of money.

    – Edd’s post accurately characterized the majority opinion. In my experience as a lawyer, this is common. Appeals courts take the easiest and least controversial way out. If they can uphold a decision, or make a decision in a way that is right, without rocking the boat, they will often do so.

    – the standard of review was abuse of discretion, I suppose I can fathom why Freshwater wanted to appeal – but for a ruling like this, with that standard of proof, no competent lawyer would have told him he could win. The Court of Appeals could not side with him on this ground unless they found that the lower court had abused its discretion in making the ruling.

    – even the decision made must touch on religious issues. This is the heart of the Court’s factual finding.

    White’s letter to Freshwater made clear that Freshwater, as a public

    school teacher, could not “engage in any activity that promotes or denigrates a

    particular religion or religious beliefs while on board property, during any school

    activity” or when he was teaching. The district simply stated what the law, and

    the First Amendment, commands.

    {¶ 81} Freshwater not only ignored the school district’s directive, he

    defied it. After he was directed to remove the items, Freshwater deliberately

    added to them, incorporating the Oxford Bible and Jesus of Nazareth into the


    – the court explicitly finds that the personal bible on the desk would be within Freshwater’s personal expression, and not an establishment of religion. However, then they step aside this and note Freshwater admitted he did the additional materials just to make a point of controversy with the school board.

    The Majority was 4-3 with 1 concurring judge stating he believes That the School district ordering Freshwater to remove a bible from his desk in the classroom was not a violation of his free speech rights, because he was merely required to put it in a desk drawer and not display it openly.

    Now reading the dissents. The first is a dessent by Judge Pfieffer

    the dissent by Pffeifer is unecessarily nasty. he refers to the Dennis Plaintiffs as “hypervigiliant” and the majority by saying “In a case bounding with arrogance and cowardice, the

    lead opinion fits right in.”

    The suit against Freshwater for the “branding” incident was settled for $475,000 – $300,000 for the Dennis parents, $25,000 for their lawyer, and a $150,000 annuity for the juvenile.

    The suit against the school district for the same incident was settled for $116,000 – Each parent recieved $1, the juvenile $5500 and the lawyers $115,000. The judge makes an exceedingly sarcastic and nasty remark that “money was surely a salve for Zach’s injured arm.”

    Pfieffer closes by referring to Freshwater as an “excellent Jr. High Science teacher” who “followed the rules” and “fought to preserve his rights.” and that this case is the school board’s loss and only the lawyer’s win.

    – are ohio Supreme court judges elected? I would guess so after reading that opinion.

    The Dissent by Odonnell is more reasoned, and this is the core of his dissent.

    <The lead opinion recognizes that Freshwater had a constitutional

    right to keep his Bible on his desk and that he was not insubordinate for doing so

    and could not be terminated on that basis, yet it concludes that he had no First

    Amendment right to have the copies of the Oxford Bible or Jesus of Nazareth

    from the school library in his classroom, because these books were not a part of

    his personal religious exercise. The conclusory statement in the lead opinion that Freshwater

    was defiant because he had these library books in his classroom is unwarranted….

    The conclusion that Freshwater was insubordinate for failing to remove these items is not supported by the evidence, which demonstrates that the school board singled him out to avoid defending itself against a threatened lawsuit.

  • Ben P

    Well I completely screwed that formatting.

    Part 2 of Odonnell’s opinion is mentioned above, and does appear to argue that Freshwater’s “teachings” fall within the school’s policy on Academic freedom, because he does appear to accept Freshwater’s testimony that he was “teaching the controversy” so to speak. But ultimately that’s not the core of O’Donnell’s opinion.

    The School board identified two reasons Freshwater was fired. The first is Freshwater’s “failure to follow the established curriculum” and the second ground was “disobedience of orders.”

    Freshwater argued his disobedience of orders was supported by his first amendment rights, and anything he taught was not outside of the curriclum and he hadn’t violated school policies.

    the first level appellate court made a blanket “did not abuse discretion” standard. The Supreme Court affirmed on that standard as to insubordination and held that while the “bible on desk” was protected expression, it did not justify disobedience to an order.

  • dogmeat

    For 15 years, the school had to tell him repeatedly to stop doing so and, when it came out that he had burned a cross into a student’s arm with a Tesla coil, they finally had enough. Burning the kid’s arm — intentionally — was more than enough to justify his firing.


    From what I’ve read about the case, both at Panda’s Thumb and elsewhere, this summary isn’t quite accurate. For at least a few years there was an administrator on campus who may have agreed with Freshwater and at least tacitly allowed his activities. They were, I believe, a member of his church and likely shared some of his beliefs. The newer administrative team didn’t necessarily know what was going on in his room for some time after they took over. How often administrators go into classrooms varies a great deal. One school where I worked I can honestly tell you the principal and AP were never, in two years, in my room while I was instructing. This was a very good, high achieving school, but almost anything could have been going on as far as admin was concerned. I don’t know if this case is one where they didn’t go into the room, or the steps Freshwater took were good enough to keep them from seeing what was going on, etc., but from what I’ve read official reprimands, or even discussions were limited prior to the burning incident. With that incident, I believe there was enough confusion involved regarding the training of the staff with the use of the equipment that the school likely would have lost that argument. From what I’ve read, at least some of Freshwater’s peers used or had used the equipment in the same (or at least similar) idiotic manner. If that is accurate, they’d have a very difficult time firing him for something that others had done as well.