More than a century before Ohio science teacher John Freshwater found himself at the center of a battle over academic freedom in the classroom, namely, whether he has a right to urge his students to think critically about topics such as evolution, John T. Scopes faced a similar firing squad. In Scopes’ case, however, he was prosecuted—or persecuted, as it were—for violating a Tennessee law, the Butler Act, prohibiting the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools.
While ostensibly about the debate over creationism versus evolution, Scopes’ ensuing 1925 trial,1 immortalized in the award-winning play and film Inherit the Wind, presaged a shift in the way the nation relates to religion, particularly Judeo-Christian doctrines. This growing tension over the First Amendment’s religion clauses, affirming freedom for the exercise of religion while prohibiting the government from establishing religion, continues to play out in the backdrop of the public schools. It is reflected in national debates over prayer in schools, the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and classroom discussions about the universe’s origins.
From Creationism to Evolution
The first U.S. trial to be broadcast on national radio, the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, although initially contrived as a way to put Dayton, Tennessee, on the map, instead put the Judeo-Christian beliefs of a large portion of the nation on trial. Scopes, a high school science teacher, agreed to be the lead actor in a constitutional challenge to the state’s prohibition on teaching evolution in its schools. Scopes threw down his proverbial gauntlet on April 24, 1925, when he led students in reading a section of a state-mandated textbook that explicitly described and endorsed the theory of evolution.
Charged with breaking the law, Scopes was put through an eight-day trial and a nine-minute jury deliberation before being found guilty and fined $100. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, Scopes’ legal team argued that the ban on teaching evolution, rooted in a biblical worldview, violated the science teacher’s right to free speech and the state’s establishment clause. The Tennessee high court hinged its ruling in State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes on the then-dominant interpretation of the establishment clause, that the government could not establish a particular religion as the state religion. The Tennessee high court deemed the Butler Act to be constitutional because it did not establish a single religion as the state religion. (The Butler Act was a 1925 Tennessee law prohibiting public school teachers from denying the biblical account of humanity’s origin.)
Following Scopes, the evolution/creationism debate underwent little change until the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 ruling in Epperson v. Arkansas, 2 which struck down an Arkansas statute similar to Tennessee’s Butler Act. The case centered on a Little Rock, Arkansas, biology teacher who claimed the prohibition on teaching evolution was a violation of her First Amendment rights. Siding with the teacher, the Court held that the U.S. Constitution prohibits a state from requiring teachers to conform to a particular religion. The Court noted that “the state’s undoubted right to prescribe the curriculum for its public schools does not carry with it the right to prohibit, on pain of criminal penalty, the teaching of a scientific theory or doctrine where that prohibition is based upon reasons that violate the First Amendment.”3
Epperson marked the beginning of a shift away from teaching creationism in the public school classroom toward teaching evolutionary theory. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, states began to grapple with whether evolution should be taught in conjunction with creationism, or if evolution should supplant creationism as the sole theory to be discussed in the classroom. While bans on teaching evolution were clearly unconstitutional, the looming question revolved around whether evolution and creationism could co-exist as doctrines. Several states introduced legislation that would require “creation science” to be taught alongside “evolutionary science,” and thus the academic freedom debate emerged.
Finally, in 1987, the United States Supreme Court effectively completed the national transition away from creationism and toward evolutionary theory in Edwards v. Aguillard,4 when it struck down a Louisiana act that required evolution and creationism to be taught together. Proponents of the act argued that the law protected the academic freedom of teachers. However, while the Court ultimately held that the law violated the establishment clause, by no means did they slam the door shut on teaching creationism. In fact, the Supreme Court left open the possibility of teaching alternative theories about the origin of life as long as they are done with the intent to enhance the effectiveness of science instruction.
A quarter of a century later evolution has supplanted creationism as the more focused area of instruction in the public school science classroom. Against such a backdrop, teacher John Freshwater’s case reflects the ongoing tension between creationism and evolution, state-mandated curricula and academic freedom, and free speech versus political correctness, the latter having added a whole new layer of complications to what was once a primarily legal and moral discussion.
Enter John Freshwater
In 2011 John Freshwater, a Christian with a 20-year teaching career at Mount Vernon Middle School in Ohio, was fired for encouraging his students to think critically about the school’s science curriculum, particularly as it relates to evolution theories.
A graduate of Ohio University, Freshwater began teaching science at Mount Vernon Middle School in 1987 and proved himself an outstanding teacher, popular with the students and never once receiving a negative performance evaluation.
That all changed in 2008, when the Mount Vernon school board voted unanimously to begin termination proceedings against the veteran educator, citing concerns about his conduct and teaching materials, particularly as they related to the teaching of evolution. Earlier that year school officials reportedly ordered Freshwater, who had served as the faculty appointed facilitator, monitor, and supervisor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes student group for 16 of the 20 years that he taught at Mount Vernon, to remove “all religious items” from his classroom, including a Ten Commandments poster displayed on the door of his classroom, posters with Bible verses, and his personal Bible, which he kept on his desk. Freshwater agreed to remove all items except for his Bible.
Ironically, despite the school board’s criticisms of Freshwater’s methods, his students routinely outperformed other students, having earned the highest state standardized test scores of any eighth-grade science class in the district during the 2007-2008 academic school year. Freshwater was also the only science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School to achieve a “passing” score on the Ohio Achievement Test, setting him ahead of his fellow educators.
The school board, however, wasted no time in initiating termination proceedings against Freshwater and suspending him without pay, prompting the veteran educator to request a public hearing. During the hearing process, which lasted almost two years, school officials were subjected to an outpouring of support for the beloved teacher, with students showing their support for Freshwater by organizing a rally in his honor and wearing T-shirts with crosses painted on them, as well as carrying Bibles to class.
On January 7, 2011, the hearing referee made a nonbinding recommendation that Freshwater be fired because “he persisted in his attempts to make eighth-grade science what he thought it should be—an examination of accepted scientific curriculum with the discerning eye of Christian doctrine.” Despite the school board’s own stated policy that, because religious traditions vary in their treatment of science, teachers should give unbiased instruction so that students may evaluate it “in accordance with their own religious tenets,” the school board fired John Freshwater a week later, claiming that he improperly injected religion into the classroom by giving students “reason to doubt the accuracy and/or veracity of scientists, science textbooks and/or science in general.”
With the help of the Rutherford Institute, Freshwater mounted a legal challenge in court, arguing that where a teacher’s speech is in compliance with all board policies and directly relates to the prescribed curriculum, the school should not be permitted to terminate the teacher’s employment as a means of censoring a particular academic viewpoint from the classroom. Waging an uphill and losing battle through the courts, Freshwater’s case finally landed before the Ohio Supreme Court, which heard the case in February 2013.
Insisting that Freshwater has no claim to academic freedom that would allow him to teach evolution from a Christian perspective, school officials defended the firing. Reminding the court that academic freedom was once the bedrock of American education, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued that what we need today are more teachers and school administrators who understand that young people don’t need to be indoctrinated. Rather, they need to be taught how to think for themselves. “By firing John Freshwater for challenging his students to think outside the box,” stated the institute, “school officials violated a core First Amendment freedom—the right to debate and express ideas contrary to established views.”
Academic Freedom in the Classroom
Although Freshwater’s teaching methods are at the heart of Mount Vernon’s particular firestorm, teaching alternative theories in science classrooms in order to challenge students to think critically about what they are learning and enhance their education is not a particularly new approach. However, Freshwater’s case does transform the age-old debate over creationism versus evolutionism into one over the extent to which teachers have a claim to academic freedom when teaching controversial issues.
While evolution may be at the heart of this particular academic freedom debate, a teacher’s ability to present controversial views extends far beyond discussing the origins of life to explorations of world history, American politics, and other topics of import.
Such was the case of Wilson v. Chancellor. In 1976 a high school political science teacher, hoping to engage his students, invited four speakers espousing differing political viewpoints to his classroom, among these a Democrat, a Republican, a Communist, and a member of the John Birch Society. Despite the fact that the invitations were made with the express approval of the principal and local school board, members of the community objected, going so far as to circulate a petition demanding that the board’s decision be reversed and threatening to vote out the school board members. In response, the board reversed its decision and banned all political speakers from the school.
When the case went to court, the district court ruled against the school board, finding fault with the board’s rationale for reversing their decision, which hinged upon a fear of losing their seats, rather than any evidence that the speakers were incompetent or that the political viewpoints discussed were inappropriate for a high school political science class. The end result: teachers were allowed to invite political speakers to the classroom.5
Recognizing that academic freedom is critical to providing a varied, in-depth, and quality education, especially in light of an increasingly politically correct climate that shows a certain disdain for all things religious, several states have adopted “academic freedom bills” in order to combat the intimidation, retaliation, and contempt teachers and students face when they attempt to discuss alternative theories and criticisms of evolution.
Unlike earlier, pre-Aguillard legislation, however, these bills do not call for teaching intelligent design and creationism as part of the school curriculum. Rather, academic freedom bills promote discussing evolution with a critical eye and acknowledging that evolution is, indeed, controversial. Further, these bills emphasize that, while teachers may be limited by certain school board policies, administrators should not interfere with the actual teaching methods and attempts to encourage students to understand the controversial debates surrounding scientific theories. Simply put, the legislation attempts to put a stop to the assault on academic freedom, which is seen as adverse to our traditions as a free society and to the progress of science itself.6
Less than 100 years ago creationism was generally held as the only valid lesson plan for science classrooms, while the very notion of teaching evolution in our schools was controversial. Now the tables have turned, and we find ourselves in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past in terms of trying to censor unpopular viewpoints in the classroom.
Socrates, who once observed that “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” would be justifiably horrified at America’s present brand of rote education, so reliant on standardized tests and core curricula that there is little time to teach young people anything beyond the written curriculum, including how to think analytically and for themselves.
As the notable Greek philosopher concluded: “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” Doubtless, John Freshwater would agree.
1 State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1925).
2 Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968).
3 Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 107 (1968).
4 Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578.
5 Wilson v. Chancellor, 418 F.Supp. 1358 (D.C.Or. 1976).
Author: John W. Whitehead
John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Foundation, writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.