March 16, 2012

Willkie prepares amicus brief on behalf of the National Center for Science Education supporting a local school district that fired a science teacher over his inappropriate religious activity in the classroom — including teaching creationism.

On March 5, Ohio’s Fifth District Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the termination of John Freshwater, a public school science teacher whom a local school board had fired over his inappropriate religious activity in the classroom — including teaching creationism. Willkie prepared and filed an amicus brief on behalf of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in support of the school board that argued that the teacher's materials and methods concerning evolution "have no basis in science and serve no pedagogical purpose."

The case, John Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon School District Board of Education, began when a local Ohio family accused Mr. Freshwater of engaging in inappropriate religious activity and sued him and the school district. After extensive administrative proceedings over a two-year period, the School Board terminated Mr. Freshwater’s contract. 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 argued 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 claimed 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 maintained that the board's actions constitute "an outright hostility to religion that ... violates the Establishment Clause."

NCSE's brief addressed "[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 argued 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."

In upholding the School Board’s decision, the Appeals Court credited the administrative referee’s findings that there was clear and convincing evidence that Freshwater had injected his personal religious beliefs into his classroom instruction, failed to employ objectivity in his science instruction, and repeatedly violated the U.S. Constitution.

NCSE’s amicus brief was prepared by partner Richard Mancino and associates Samuel Leaf and Anthony Juzaitis. Mr. Mancino, who is 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 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that explaining 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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