January 19, 2012

The National Center for Science Education files amicus curiae brief supporting a local school district that fired a science teacher over his inappropriate religious activity in the classroom — including teaching creationism.

The National Center for Science Education recently filed an amicus curiae brief supporting a local school district that fired a middle school science teacher over his inappropriate religious activity in the classroom — including teaching creationism. NCSE's brief, prepared pro bono by Willkie, argues that the teacher's materials and methods concerning evolution "have no basis in science and serve no pedagogical purpose." The case, John Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, is being heard before Ohio's Fifth District Court of Appeals.

In 2008, a local Ohio family accused Mr. Freshwater of engaging in inappropriate religious activity and sued him and the school district. After extensive administrative hearings and proceedings over a two-year period, The Mount Vernon City School Board terminated Mr. Freshwater’s employment. Mr. Freshwater challenged his termination in the Knox County Court of Common Pleas in February 2011, but the court found "there is clear and convincing evidence to support the Board of Education's termination of Freshwater's contract(s) for good and just cause."

On appeal, Mr. Freshwater is arguing that he "sought to encourage his students to differentiate between facts and theories, and to identify and discuss instances where textbook statements were subject to intellectual and scientific debate," and claims that "his encouraging students to think critically about scientific theories ... cannot be rendered illegal based solely on the presumption that Freshwater's personal beliefs happen to align with one of the competing theories considered." He holds that the board's actions constitute "an outright hostility to religion that ... violates the Establishment Clause."

NCSE's brief addresses "[w]hether there is any pedagogical or scientific merit in John Freshwater's teaching of 'alternative theories' to evolution, including theories that are 'consistent' [as Freshwater's appeal brief described them] with Christian religious beliefs, and whether there is pedagogical or scientific merit in his specific approach to 'encouraging students to think critically' about evolution" and argues that Freshwater's "materials and methods serve no legitimate pedagogical purpose in a public school science class, are scientifically unsound, and serve only impermissibly to advance a sectarian purpose, namely to teach creationism in its traditional version of creation science or its modern incarnation of intelligent design."

NCSE’s amicus brief was prepared by partner Richard Mancino and associates Samuel Leaf and Anthony Juzaitis. Mr. Mancino, who is very active in the firm’s pro bono program, also led the Willkie team in Cobb County School District, et al. v. Jeffrey Michael Selman, et al., a case in which Willkie, on behalf of 56 professional scientific organizations, submitted an amicus brief that explained to the court that an anti-evolution sticker placed on biology textbooks was scientifically inaccurate, served to denigrate the status and validity of evolutionary theory, and had no legitimate pedagogical purpose. Additionally, Mr. Mancino, together with Mr. Leaf, led the Willkie team that helped win an important settlement in a high-profile civil rights matter involving a student who blew the whistle on a New Jersey teacher who was proselytizing in class, a case that was profiled in The New York Times.

Click to read the amicus curiae brief in the Freshwater case.

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