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Ohio justices consider case of science teacher fired for espousing creationism

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a heated hour of arguments, Ohio Supreme Court justices sparred with lawyers Wednesday over the extent to which a public school science teacher had the right to push his personal religious beliefs in class.

A lawyer for the school board that dismissed John Freshwater in 2011 said he waved a Bible at his students, handed out religious pamphlets, and espoused creationism in his evolution lessons.

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Freshwater violated the constitutional separation between church and state and was rightfully fired, said David Smith, an attorney for the Mount Vernon School Board.

‘‘You can’t teach evolution from a Christian perspective’’ without violating constitutional protections against government establishment of religion, he said.

Freshwater’s attorney, Rita Dunaway, said accounts of Freshwater’s class conduct were exaggerated and that the instructor was exercising his academic freedom to explore controversial ideas.

Dunaway said Freshwater had a laudable teaching record and his students scored well on standardized science tests.

Freshwater was dismissed in 2011 after investigators reported he preached Christian beliefs in class when discussing topics such as evolution and homosexuality and was insubordinate in failing to remove the Bible from his classroom.

Justices appeared perplexed, at times irritated, about what lawyers believed was the legal issue before them. Justice Paul Pfeifer was incredulous when Smith argued that Freshwater’s evolution class wouldn’t have been covered under the district’s controversial-issues policy.

Freshwater also had been accused of using a science tool to burn students’ arms with the image of a cross.

Justices wanted to know Wednesday whether that incident played a role in Freshwater’s dismissal. Smith speculated that attention surrounding that incident was what prompted the investigation into Freshwater’s 21-year career.

In its review, the board concluded Freshwater had used a high-frequency generator to burn a cross onto a student’s arm. The cross lasted a few weeks.

The student’s family settled a federal lawsuit against the district in an effort to move on.

Two lower courts previously upheld Freshwater’s dismissal.

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