The decision of an Ohio middle school to fire a popular, Christian science teacher of over 20 years has generated protest, outcry, and divisions among the residents of Mount Vernon over concerns that the decision may have been motivated out of religious bias against Christians.
At the heart of the debate are concerns about the decision by the Mount Vernon School district to unanimously dismiss instructor John Freshwater because of reports that he had preached his Christian beliefs and had burned the image of a cross on the arms of students.
Freshwater, however, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and asserts that the accusations stem largely from an incident back in April when he clashed with school officials over the right to keep a Bible on display at his desk.
"The removal of [the Bible] will be nothing short of the infringement on my deeply held religious beliefs," he said in a statement in April.
Freshwater also dismissed accusations of a supposed incident in which he burned the arms of students with "crosses" arguing that it was part of a harmless experiment in which he drew X marks to help demonstrate electrical current.
David Daubenmire, spokesman for Freshwater, said that he believes the charges against Freshwater were all motivated out of bias and prejudice. The electrical current experiment had been a part of Freshwater's curriculum for over 20 years, he explained.
"They used half-truths," Freshwater said of the investigative panel that dismissed him, according to The Associated Press.
"They didn't interview people who had been in my classroom. Science teachers at the high school: Why would you interview them?" he asked.
Meanwhile, students at the school and people throughout the community have rallied to Freshwater's cause, arguing that his case is one of blatant religious discrimination.
Freshwater, who has had a long teaching career spanning over two decades, was described as a popular and favorite teacher by Mount Vernon students who were interviewed, according to The Associated Press.
Students and associates of Freshwater have all claimed that he has never once tried to preach or teach his religious beliefs while in the classroom.
"The Bible, that should be OK to have," James Mills, a former student of Freshwater, told The Associated Press concerning Freshwater's rights. "Isn't it in the Constitution that we have freedom of religion?"
Critics, however, claim that Freshwater had a history of behavior that drew complaints from both teachers and students.
"I think things were just overlooked and overlooked and overlooked and then it just came to a head," said Kelly Montgomery, who had a son enrolled in Freshwater's class a few years ago, according to AP.
"It's been terrible for the whole community," she said.
Freshwater has indicated that he intends to challenge his dismissal from the school in a hearing later this month, according to his attorney.