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Mount Vernon school system scrutinizes "religious" teacher

Mount Vernon school administrators await results from an independent investigator before taking any action in the case of Eighth grade science instructor John Freshwater. Freshwater refuses to remove a Bible from his desk at the local middle school. While supporters rallied, others say he uses his teaching position to preach his Christian views.

Sentiment last week on the square in Mount Vernon seemed to be running in favor of teacher John Freshwater. Steve Bishop owns a downtown antique store.

"There's been a lot of support in the area for him. A lot of the school children have been giving him a lot of support," Bishop says.

Cody Kennedy is an 8th grader at Mount Vernon Middle School. He's says he's never had a class that Freshwater taught, but he says he knows about the Bible on his desk.

"He's a nice guy. He wasn't really teaching anything he just had it there because I know he's a really religious guy but he never really meant to do any harm with it," Kennedy says.

Freshwater was told earlier this month to remove certain items from his classroom that represented his Christian faith. One was a poster of the Ten Commandments. Those items were removed. But when asked to remove his Bible, Freshwater refused. Here he's speaking at a rally, the recording from the local paper, the Mount Vernon News.

"Because the Bible is personal private property and a source of personal inner strength in my own life, the removal from my desk would be nothing short of infringement on my deeply held personal religious beliefs granted by God and granted under the free exercise clause of the first amendment of the United States Constitution. With much soul-searching, I cannot remove the book from my desk," Freshwater said.

Freshwater is also accused of speaking about his faith during classes and at meetings of the student club Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

There's another, more serious charge: he's alleged to have burned a student with a science instrument. This is Mount Vernon school superintendent Steve Short.

"The one incident with the burning occurred in December. When that complaint came in, our building administrator sat down with Mr. Freshwater and discussed expectations and guidelines that the school district expected, and then Mr. Freshwater was given the opportunity to meet those requests."

Freshwater declined to be interviewed by WOSU, but he called the burning incident "a smokescreen."

Chris Link, the executive director of the ACLU of Ohio, says the issue of the Bible on a teacher's desk is simple. She says a teacher cannot advocate for his or her faith in the classroom.

"The position of the courts on this matter has been very clear over time. A teacher is not allowed to use their role in the classroom as a podium to promote their particular religious beliefs. So our position is that the school board is acting appropriately by asking the teacher to put the Bible away. The teacher could still have the Bible in the drawer, in a locker, in a backpack," Link says.

In a written statement two weeks John Freshwater quoted a section of the First Amendment, and then asked, " if Congress can make no law prohibiting the free exercise of faith, from where does the Mount Vernon City Schools obtain the power to restrict it?"

But the ACLU's Chris Link says Freshwater, as an employee, has certain obligations.

"In the course of his employment he is really not the person who gets to make that decision. He is an employee as most of us are and needs to follow the rules and guidelines of his employer. In addition, as a teacher, he does not have the permission or the right to use his job to promote his particular religious belief."

Calls to Freshwater's attorney were not returned. A school administrator now sits in on Freshwater's classes at Mount Vernon Middle School. And the school system has hired an outside investigator to examine the alleged incidents. The Bible on Freshwater's desk, for the time being, remains.