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06 October 2011

Praise: Judge Upholds Firing of Ohio Teacher

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Public schools are an extension of the government.  (In many states school districts, because of their relationship with property owners via taxes, are governmental bodies).  In schools, teachers are in positions of authority.  If a teacher tells her or his students that the correct way to spell "legislator" on the next test is "t-u-r-k-e-y", then that is what is correct (if the students want full marks).  [Apologies to any birds who might take offense.]

Students are trained, to varying degrees, to be respectful and docile in the classroom.  When a teacher tells students that something is so, then the students are in a position where it is very difficult to challenge the teacher's authority.  If that teacher, that authority, tells students that they have to believe a particular way, then the students are in an uncomfortable position.

Further, if a teacher advocates a particular religious belief, odds are that some of the students or their parents will not ascribe to that faith.  This is a very real situation.  I have had students who are Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian (both catholic and various protestant denominations), Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Wiccan, and probably other faiths as well as atheist.  If a religious question is asked in class and it is not a distraction from the lesson, the answer must be carefully constructed to be factual and not persuasive.

Not everyone agrees with my understanding of the Constitution and the classroom.  In 2009, John Freshwater was fired for preaching in the classroom.  Very quickly, there were religious organizations taking his side calling for freedom of speech.  (That is the same amendment to the Constitution that begins with the establishment clause).  One News Now quickly backed this "hero of the faith"The ruling that his firing has been upheld is on the AP newswire today.

The story is not really over.  The case is being appealed by the Rutherford Institute, an organization that specializes in religious liberty and civil liberty.  They say that all Mr. Freshwater did was to use religious articles to encourage critical thinking about evolution.  They also note that he forgot to remove a Bible from his desk.

Reading between the lines, this looks very much like Mr. Freshwater was not actively preaching in the classroom but was encouraging his own beliefs as a challenge to science.  That belongs in a church or private event, not in a public school.  Judge Eyster ruled correctly and I am guessing that the ruling will be upheld when appealed.

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