If you follow creationism, you’ll be familiar with the case of John Freshwater, a teacher of eighth-grade science students (i.e., 14-year-olds) in Ohio. He was a goddie who taught creationism, kept a Bible on his desk, bedecked the classroom walls with religious pictures, and became notorious for burning the sign of the cross into one of his student’s arms to demonstrate the principle of a Tesla coil. Here’s Freshwater’s demonstration of “science”, an exhibit used in the civil court case against him (it was settled out of court):
After three years of back-and-forth, the school board fired Freshwater in 2011. He appealed his dismissal to the county court, which denied it. He then appealed to a higher court, the Ohio Fifth District Court of Appeals. The appeal was denied again. Freshwater’s last resort was an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, which heard his case in February. The court issued its decision two days ago: Freshwater’s firing would stand. You can see the final ruling as a pdf file here (it includes the dissents).
As The Raw Story reports, the decision was surprisingly close: 4-3. And it was upheld not on the grounds that he was teaching creationism, but that he refused to remove religious materials from the classroom despite orders of his boss (displaying those religious materials are, however, just as much a violations of the First Amendment as is teaching creationism):
The court issued a 4-3 ruling Tuesday that agreed with an appeals court and the trial court that teacher John Freshwater had failed to comply with orders to remove religious materials from his classroom.
The court said that was enough to spur Freshwater’s dismissal, so it didn’t even need to rule on whether the teacher impermissibly imposed his religious views in the classroom.
“We recognize that this case is driven by a far more powerful debate over the teaching of creationism and intelligent design alongside evolution,” the court noted in its decision. “(But) 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.”
That would seem a bit cowardly, as they could have ruled on the creationism issue as well. As the decision notes, though, courts try to avoid adjudicating constitutional issues whenever possible.
They upheld Freshwater’s firing simply because he was insubordinate, refusing to take religious matter out of his class when ordered (these included the Bible that he kept on his desk and pictures on the wall showing George W. Bush and Colin Powell in prayer). An excerpt from the decision:
The judges took the easy way out, and even that was close. Nevertheless, the court decision is full of interesting information like this:
The Raw Story summarizes the basis for the three judges’ dissent:
The minority disagreed, writing in their opinion that Freshwater had been “singled out by the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education because of 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.”
Apparently those judges haven’t gotten the messages that it is a violation of the Constitution to teach creationism in science classes, and that “singling someone out” for so doing is entirely fair. That’s settled law. But they also claimed was that it was not grounds for insubordination to keep a Bible on one’s desk, completely avoiding the issue of whether such insubordination also violated the Constitution.
As far as I can see, then, it’s clearly unconstitutional to teach creationism (as Freshwater did) in his science class, but it’s not settled law about whether someone can be fired for doing that. I suspect that if such a teacher were ordered to desist, and refused, then firing would be legal.