Hi! Did you enjoy your feast of tears? (Fat-free and zero calories!) Today we’re going to serve up the next course by looking at the curious case of John Freshwater, a middle-school science teacher and fundagelical zealot from Ohio who has finally gotten fully denied his attempts to coyly–and illegally–introduce religious indoctrination into his classroom.
A few years ago you might have heard of this guy. He’s the one who was, no shit, burning crosses into kids’ arms. When the kids’ parents freaked out at the school, Mr. Freshwater lied about what he’d done, saying oh no, it was just the letter X, not a cross, even though it totally looks like a total cross and not an X (whose arms are generally of equal length, rather than t-shaped like the burns were). How often have we seen Christians lie like this? Far, far too many; they depend upon the idea of plausible deniability to exercise their overreach. Unfortunately, the kids themselves–many of whom sounded otherwise quite receptive to his blandishments–described the burns as “crosses” and not as “a letter X.” Kids today… maybe crosses are the new emoji for the letter X, did these know-it-all court people think of that? I bet they didn’t!
Well, I’d heard about that incident, yes, but it didn’t even occur to me that this was the same guy whose court case has been winding through the system since, oh, 2008. Basically, he was teaching Creationism rather than real science and he got caught when one student’s parents brought a lawsuit against him and the school. In the fallout of the lawsuit, which eventually got settled out of court, Mr. Freshwater got fired. He in turn sued the school, saying that his dismissal was illegal. At every single level, he kept getting denied, but he kept appealing to the next highest level. Finally, he ended up at SCOTUS.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear about his dismissal suit, which means that the previous ruling–that the school was right to fire his ass–stands. (And people say our tax dollars don’t work for us. Speaking of which, I wish I lived in DC–I’d buy Justice Ginsburg a beer, for real. Or whatever she likes. It could be decaf tea out of an orange-and-yellow cardboard box and I’d drink it with her with a smile on my face.)
What really astonished me about this whole story is how this guy dishonestly presented his views and his behavior to the court. All the while he was whining that he wanted nothing more than to teach kids adequate science, he was destroying their faith in science–and for a religious reason. All the while he was saying that what he was doing had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with science, he was giving douchetastic speeches in his town’s square about how his freedom of religion was being infringed upon and using primarily arguments based around his freedom of religion to excuse his antics. As the National Center for Science Education’s Amicus brief details, he couldn’t even keep his own lies straight; he used inherently religious arguments and got his materials straight from religious organizations like Answers in Genesis, but still maintained that what he was doing was not actually the advancement of a religious agenda.
We won’t even get into the gay-bashing he did during classes, telling students that obviously “Science is wrong” if studies show that there might be a genetic component to someone being gay, “because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin, and so anyone who is gay chooses to be gay and is therefore a sinner.” So I’m sure the LGBTQ students in his class, along with the non-Christian ones, felt very loved, cherished, and safe there, especially in the wake of his termination, when oodles of gung-ho toxic Christian kids began drilling down on their religion in the halls and classes of the school. As many dissenting students have discovered in recent years, whenever toxic Christians feel threatened, their usual recourse is to make the dissenters feel even less safe and loved; in this case, students began ostentatiously lugging their Bibles all over the place (idolatry, anybody?) and wearing T-shirts with religious slogans and ones supporting their now-fired teacher (I wonder how many starving children could have eaten with the money spent on this swag?). It seriously isn’t about loving Jesus. It’s about punishing anybody who threatens Christians’ dominance. These kids have certainly learned that lesson, even if their understanding of science is shaky.
Mr. Freshwater’s blatant dishonesty continued, getting worse and worse as things progressed. He flat-out lied about having burned a child with any symbols at all, clearly hoping that the parents he was lying to didn’t know he’d already given a deposition saying he had done exactly this–and often–just not with a cross symbol. He lied about teaching only what was on the curriculum and about not ever teaching kids Creationism rather than real science; not only did he present that curriculum so incompletely that his students often struggled in their next grade’s science classes (p. 23-24), but he diverged from that curriculum frequently to teach Creationist ideas which messed them up even more when they got to the next teacher. He also lied about the people that his opposition had interviewed, claiming they had not interviewed anybody who’d been in his classroom while assembling information about him so that he could claim that they had done something shady and one-sided, but they actually had interviewed a great number of people who’d been directly and deeply involved with his classroom–students, monitors, and others; it’s hard to imagine he didn’t know that fact–and even stranger still that he didn’t retract this bizarrely self-serving claim once it had been debunked.
Oh, okay, that last bit was a teensy little bit sarcastic. It’s not strange at all to me that he drilled down on how unfairrrrrr and meeeeeeeean everybody was to poor widdle him, or that he is presenting himself as a victim of religious persecution when he is not one at all. Misrepresentation, deliberate obtuseness, willful ignorance, distortion, and outright fabrication is par for the course for Creationist Christians. If they didn’t have those tactics, they’re really be left with absolutely nothing in their toolbox. But oh, I wish it shocked me still to run across a Christian liar-for-Jesus.
Alas, Mr. Freshwater’s initial complaint got dismissed “with prejudice” in 2010, which means it’s over for that one. He was officially terminated right afterward, and began his new round of appeals right afterward to appeal the termination. That appeal is what just finally ended.
It seems quite clear to me that what really concerned this guy was religious chest-thumping and pushing his views onto young, vulnerable minds. When he got told to take down all the religious posters and Bibles from kids’ view, he obnoxiously went and got more religious stuff to display for students to see, a thumbing-of-the-nose that I’ve seen many, many times from Christians. When he got told to pray and read his Bible on his own time while at school instead of when he was supposed to be teaching, he decided that really meant that he’d been told to never pray or read his Bible in the school–which is something we’ve certainly heard Christians say many times.
We’ve been talking about how Christians think “persecution” means as little as the removal of their ability to shove their religious ideas down the throats of unwilling victims, and this guy certainly seems like he falls into that thinking. Turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and offering one’s other belongings to anybody who takes anything of theirs might well be exactly what Jesus supposedly told his followers to do, but obviously there was an asterisk around that idea that modern Christians have adopted, embraced, and practice eagerly rather than doing what he explicitly told them.
One thing that Christians are going to have to learn, as society moves forward, is that they don’t get to shove their ideas at people. Their right to believe whatever they like and associate however they wish does not include the right to trample over others’ rights. Here’s a good analysis from a law professor about the context of what John Freshwater was doing, and as you read it (as I truly hope that you will), be thinking about how what this professor writes applies to a lot of other things that Christians do in our society, which many of them do with this wide-eyed, kittenish, totally innocent-looking insistence that they’re not doing anything wrong, oh no, they just fell on that set of graduation-ceremony proselytizing prayers, how’d that ever get there… And nobody’s fooled. We’re not even required to pretend that we are.
In the end, this court case represents a solid bit of precedent for future Creationism-related court cases. We all thought that Kitzmiller v. Dover would be the end of Creationists’ attempt to sneak back into schools, and I think that it did help halt the serious encroachment efforts, but obviously we’ve still got a few battles to fight in clean-up operations. On the mega-plus side, according to the NCSE, there’s only one open case going on right now–in Kansas, of course, with a group of Christian fundagelical right-wing kooks filing suit as an objection to the Kansas School Board’s reality-based curriculum. (The defendants’ memorandum requesting dismissal is a typically awesome smackdown of the lawsuit’s dubious merits and worth a read for anybody who needs to brush up on why Creationism isn’t science and certainly isn’t reality-based.) The reason I bring it up is that the lawsuit itself echoes something we’ve looked at lately with Shane Hayes’ writing, this idea that atheists (who of course are “evolutionists”) believe something just as dogmatic and impossible-to-verify as Christians do so therefore it’s religious too, which these Christians in Kansas believe means that evolution cannot be taught to kids in public schools. Their disingenuous tactic of using relabeled and misapplied words continues apace:
The Framework and Standards (of Kansas’ science curriculum) are neutral regarding religion. Yet Plaintiffs strain to imbue the Framework and Standards with religious meaning, primarily by misusing “religious” labels like “Orthodoxy,” “indoctrinate,” and “evangelize” to describe them. When stripped of these misleading labels, it is clear that the Kansas State Board of Education adopted the Framework and Standards for the secular purpose of providing all students an internationally-benchmarked science education.
So it’s going to be interesting to see how COPE v. Kansas State BOE is going to go. And by “interesting” I mean it’s going to be awesome.
John Freshwater, after it was all said and done, ended up teaching science at Genoa Christian Academy for a bit after getting canned from the middle school where he’d kicked up all that fuss. A religious school is where he needed to be all along, though one does feel sorry for the kids at this school if a science-denying teacher was a great idea to hire. He lost his home some time ago paying his legal fees, and that makes me feel sorry as well for his family, who really do bear the brunt of the burden of his lies and bravado. But now, at least going by his LinkedIn profile, it seems like he’s between jobs. Maybe Fox News needs a commentator–that is, unless his sideline of “tree trimming and stump grinding” took off so well he isn’t looking for another job where he gets to lie for Jesus. One thing I can say about these charlatans: they always seem to find some more suckers to bankroll them among the gullible, overly-trusting flocks of dominance-seizing, ignorant Christians who fall so well for the sort of chicanery Creationists sell. So I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of this one.