Jenifer Dennis remembers the shock she felt when she looked at her son Zachary’s arm one night in December of 2007.
A section of the 13-year-old’s arm was covered with welts and blisters in the shape of a cross.
“I compare it to a sunburn, curling iron burn or an oven burn,” Dennis said. “It was a red raised area that was swollen…. He had trouble sleeping that night.”
When Dennis found out how her son was injured, her shock turned to anger: Zachary told his parents he had been burned at school by John Freshwater, an 8th grade science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
Dennis took her concerns to school officials, setting off a chain reaction of events that is still unfolding more than two years later. As the investigation got under way, other allegations came to light – chiefly that Freshwater had been promoting fundamentalist Christianity in class, pushing creationism and denigrating evolution.
The charges rocked normally tranquil Mount Vernon, a small city of about 15,000 people northeast of Columbus. It’s the kind of place where residents extol small-town values and recall with pride that a magazine once dubbed the town “Ohio’s most livable community,” and the flap over Freshwater was an unwelcome diversion from the city’s peppy boosterism.
Freshwater, 53, didn’t deny the accusation. He admitted using an electronic device called a Tesla coil on students but insisted that the crosses were really the letter X and that the marks were temporary.
Dennis and some other parents begged to differ. Many in town also felt that Freshwater had stepped over the line by promoting his religious views in class. The Dennis family, for example, is Christian, but Jenifer and her husband Steve feel strongly that Zachary’s religious upbringing is their job.
“I think that we have a right as parents to teach our children the way we feel best regarding religion,” Jenifer Dennis told Church & State. “I don’t think that should be the decision of a school teacher. Religion is important, but it belongs in church, a home or in a religious class. I don’t think any child should feel uncomfortable at school.”
At first, the Dennis family tried to keep their names out of the public spotlight. They proceeded anonymously for a while, but by October of 2008 it had become known that they had lodged a complaint against Freshwater. The Dennis family was so upset over the incident — and the harassment Zachary endured after reporting it — that they left town and moved to a nearby community.
Meanwhile, officials at Mount Vernon Middle School pressed forward with their investigation, uncovering evidence of a troubling mixture of religion and education in Freshwater’s classroom.
It soon came to light that Freshwater had been teaching “intelligent design” creationism since at least 2003 – the same year he publicly attacked the district for teaching evolution as a fact. School officials said he also put religious posters in his classroom, quizzed students on their religious beliefs and even offered “healing” services at meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
In June of 2008, education officials told Freshwater he would be fired. Under Ohio law, he had the right to demand a hearing, which has been under way intermittently since October of 2008.
The hearing is taking place before R. Lee Shepherd, an attorney in private practice in Shelby, Ohio, who was appointed by the Ohio Department of Education. Freshwater may have hoped the hearing would vindicate him, but in fact the process has brought a wealth of additional information to light – much of it not helpful to the teacher.
At one point, for example, school officials accused Freshwater of passing out surveys to students that asked them whether religion was important to them.
At first, Freshwater denied having used such forms. But when David J. Millstone, the school district’s attorney, produced one, Freshwater glumly complained that school officials had gone through his classroom. In fact, officials found more than 125 completed forms there.
During the hearing, Freshwater was quizzed about his use of Lego blocks in class. Freshwater said he didn’t recall such a lesson. But he had to backtrack when Millstone played a tape of Freshwater appearing on a right-wing radio program describing how he used Legos to illustrate to students that complex structures can’t build themselves – a simplistic critique of evolutionary theory.
In another case, Freshwater was confronted with handouts he had used in class that questioned evolution and asserted that animals like giraffes and woodpeckers could not have evolved. Freshwater was careful not to let students take the handouts home, always collecting them and storing them in the classroom.
Freshwater lamely asserted that the handouts were intended to teach students examples of faulty reasoning and insisted that he reused them simply to save paper.
Asked about this defense by the Columbus Dispatch, Millstone asserted, “I can only laugh.”
In fact, science teachers at the school told The New York Times that Freshwater frequently cast doubt on scientific findings and pointed to the Bible as a source for research.
One anonymous teacher told The Times that she routinely had to re-instruct Freshwater’s students in evolution because they could not grasp the basics of the theory.
Millstone told Church & State that the board listed a series of allegations against Freshwater. For example, as advisor to the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes club, Freshwater was not supposed to take part in religious activities with students. The school asserts he did so anyway. He is also accused of promoting religion in the classroom in various ways.
“One of the allegations was that he said he knows how the world is going to end because he read it in the Bible,” Millstone said. “These are serious allegations, as you can imagine.”
Many people in town are fed up. Mount Vernon has no shortage of churches, and most people see the town as fairly devout. But some say Freshwater has gone too far.
“The whole issue has been an embarrassment,” resident Ann Schnormeier told The Times. “People have faith here in this town, but Mr. Freshwater was crossing the line, and the school board has rules. There are laws, and he needs to leave his teaching position.”
But Freshwater has supporters, too. Many of them attend his church, Trinity Worship Center, an Assemblies of God congregation in Mount Vernon.
Freshwater backers have been a fixture at school board meetings. They’ve launched at least two supportive Web sites and worked to organize students on his behalf. Sympathetic students rallied to his defense in 2008 by carrying Bibles to school and wearing t-shirts reading, “I support Mr. Freshwater – God.”
The Mount Vernon News reported that the controversy has divided the student body.
“You’re either for Mr. Freshwater or you’re against Mr. Freshwater,” said parent Beth Murdoch. “There’s no in between. In the kids’ minds, I think, it is just the Bible issue. And who is going to go against the Bible? Nobody. But it seems like the ‘Christians’ are using that as an excuse to gang up on the ‘atheists.’”
Added Murdoch, “I don’t think people realize the depth of what’s going on between the students. It’s a mob mentality right now. It’s peer pressure. To not wear a t-shirt and to not bring your Bible when they say bring your Bible and wear a t-shirt, you’re asking for trouble.”
Freshwater has also been busy with his own form of media spin. In April of 2008, he convened a press conference on the town square and insisted that the school district was out to get him because he refused to remove a Bible from his desk.
Freshwater’s media message angered Dennis.
“I felt that the world had been led to believe that it was only about the teacher’s personal Bible on his desk,” she said.
In fact, as Millstone points out, none of the charges pending against Freshwater mention his Bible. School officials, said Millstone, made it clear to Freshwater that he could keep the Bible in his desk and read it during breaks. He was told to stop promoting religion in class and didn’t do it. Thus, one of the charges against Freshwater is insubordination.
Yet to the Religious Right, Freshwater is a martyr. His story has been picked up and given heavy play by OneNewsNow, a Web site run by the American Family Association, and the far-right site WorldNetDaily. It even won a mention on TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
In addition, the Christian Educators Association International is rallying to Freshwater’s cause.
“It is imperative that all Christian educators, students, and parents be willing to step forward to insist on their rights – or those rights will slowly be forfeited,” said Finn Laursen, executive director of the group. “John is proving to be a hero of the faith.”
Freshwater has also drawn support from Dave Daubenmire, a former public school football coach in London, Ohio, who in the late 1990s admitted he had been leading team members in the Lord’s prayer, passing out scriptural verses and telling Bible stories to players.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sued over the matter but reached a settlement with the school district, which agreed to end the practices.
No longer coaching, Daubenmire now runs a fringe right-wing group called Minutemen United, which is best known for protesting at gay pride events. In 2007, Minutemen even disrupted services at two gay-friendly churches in Columbus and Granville. He has now emerged as Freshwater’s leading apologist, peddling the teacher’s version of events to right-wing Web sites.
Freshwater has been active in court as well. He filed a federal lawsuit against the school, seeking $1 million in damages and is counter-suing the Dennis family. His attorney, Kelly Hamilton, has played hardball, filing a lawsuit in an effort to force some members of the school board to testify at the hearing. The matter went to the Ohio Supreme Court, which dismissed the case on Sept. 30, 2009.
Freshwater’s hearing was wrapping up as this issue of Church & State went to press. It is expected that Shepherd will issue a report to the school board within a few months, along with a recommendation on whether to fire Freshwater.
Regardless of what the board decides, Freshwater’s litigation and the separate lawsuit filed against him by the parents ensure that the controversy will percolate along for a while.
Attorneys at Americans United are following the case. As it moves forward, AU’s Legal Department retains the option of filing a friend-of-the-court brief defending church-state separation and the religious neutrality of public education.
Is this matter important or just an unusual skirmish in a small Ohio town?
Millstone said the controversy raises two important issues: the integrity of science education in America’s public schools and the right of students to be free from unwanted religious proselytizing – concerns that have resonated in communities all over the country.
“If we’re not giving our American students the basic fundamentals for science, we’re not going to be able to compete globally,” said Millstone, citing polls showing Americans lagging behind their European counterparts in acceptance of evolution.
The bigger picture, Millstone added, is that the case raises crucial issues of basic constitutional rights.
“These kids are at an impressionable age,” he said. “Is this teacher unique? I don’t think so. If teachers are allowed to bring religion into the public school when the kids are at an impressionable age, it is just wrong under our Constitution. It is just wrong. The superintendent here wants to protect the students’ right to be free from religious indoctrination in the classroom.”