Creationism Makes Its Mark

It was a little over three years ago, on December 20, 2005, that Judge John E. Jones III issued his ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover that intelligent design was not science, but merely repackaged creationism—and that it had no business in biology class.

The hoopla was immediate and enduring. Jones’ decision launched headlines across the globe, not to mention celebrations by the trial’s plaintiffs, their legal team and science experts (who send “Merry Kitzmas” greetings to each other on the anniversary).

For many, the Dover case became a cautionary tale of what can happen when a public school board believes its attempts to insert religion into the classroom can stand up to national attention and legal scrutiny.

But it would be a mistake to think that public school educators of fundamentalist faiths have made peace with science. Attacks on evolutionary education continue to take place out of the national spotlight, in small towns where people are reluctant to challenge the behavior of those clinging to power, and where teachers use their classrooms to proselytize to students away from the disapproving eyes of church-and-state watchdogs. They continue to preach intelligent design, the concept that life’s complexity demands a divine hand, and out-and-out Young Earth Creationism.

X Marks the Spot

Nowhere right now is this more apparent than in the small town of Gambier, Ohio, a place that bears a striking resemblance to the fictional town of Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls.

Here, in late September, just off a wide-spaced street that leads to the green campus of the liberal arts school of Kenyon College, a small-framed woman in dark sunglasses takes a seat at the local restaurant.

She is trying to pass unnoticed. Nervously, she nods to the owner of the establishment. Because she doesn’t know who is on her side and who’s not, Jenifer Dennis keeps her head down.

Only weeks later, Dennis would be forced to out herself publicly. But for now, she is trying to remain anonymous in order to protect her son Zachary from the inevitable recriminations from some who reside in the Mount Vernon School District in conservative south-central Ohio.

Last December she and her husband Steve accused a popular 8th-grade science teacher, John Freshwater, of using an electrostatic device known as a Tesla coil to brand a cross into Zachary’s arm [see image above]. They say the burn, which in photos show an 8-by-4-inch mark on his forearm, raised blisters, kept their son awake that night, and lasted for several weeks.

At first glance, they saw the mark as a religious emblem. But their first concern was less about religion and more about what they considered to be a case of a teacher injuring their son.

Their accusations and their resulting lawsuit against the district have brought them criticism. A sign posted in a yard near their house read, “The student goes. We Support Mr. Freshwater. The Bible stays!”

For all the unusual elements to this story, this part is the strangest. At first, Jenifer and Steve were timid about pursuing legal action against the school district, fearing that they would be perceived as anti-Christian.

They’re not.

“We are religious people,” they said in a statement after they filed suit in June. “But we were offended when Mr. Freshwater burned a cross onto the arm of our child. This was done in science class in December 2007, where an electric shock machine was used to burn our child.”

Changing Stories: An X or a Cross?

The day after the incident, Jenifer and Steve met with the district Superintendent Stephen Short and showed him a photo of her son’s burn. Jenifer recalls that she was told that Freshwater’s use of the device was unacceptable and the district would investigate.

What took place over the next several months is not exactly clear. As is typical in these types of stories, there is much disagreement over who is on the side of truth. But some details have emerged.

The district hired an independent investigator. After a lengthy investigation in which Freshwater, other teachers, students, and administrators were all interviewed, the consultant concluded in a report that Freshwater had been teaching students that evolution is a lie for at least 11 years.

The report also said that Freshwater had witnessed to students, at one point telling them that there couldn’t possibly be a genetic link to homosexuality because the Bible says it is a sin. The report also said that he handed out Bibles to members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and led them in prayers during school hours. Also, Freshwater said he had given a voluntary extra-credit assignment to students who watched Expelled, a documentary that argues teachers who believe in intelligent design are facing discrimination.

According to the report, Freshwater at first denied the incident. Later he admitted to the experiment, admitting he marked Zachary with an X. However, students interviewed for the investigation all described it as a cross.

The link to the full report is here.

In response to the investigation, Freshwater was told to remove all religious items from his room, including a poster of the Ten Commandments hanging on the wall, stickers with scripture on them, extra Bibles he kept in the back of the classroom, and the Bible that he kept on his desk.

In April, Freshwater, fearing disciplinary action, took his side of the story public. He never mentioned the branding incident. Rather he said it was because of the Bible on his desk.

Because he had refused to remove it, citing religious freedom under the First Amendment, he said he was being persecuted. Students organized a rally for him, bringing their Bibles to school in support. A Web site devoted to Freshwater’s cause is called www.bibleonthedesk.com.

But Dennis said the issue was never about the Bible on the desk. And nowhere in the lawsuit’s initial complaint is it even mentioned.

Rather, she says, it’s because her son was branded.

After Freshwater took his side public, Jenifer said she and her husband were worried Freshwater wouldn’t face disciplinary action. In June, they filed a lawsuit against Freshwater and the district for violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by permitting religion to be taught in class, and for failing to protect their son. Federal law allows such civil liberties cases to be filed anonymously. Freshwater has filed a countersuit, citing defamation of character.

In July, the school board suspended Freshwater without pay based on the investigatory report, saying he had misused the electrical device, taught religion in his science class, and failed to follow district curriculum and rules.

Both sides are now awaiting the outcome of administrative hearing to determine whether he should be permanently fired. The hearings took place this fall and have been continued until January 6.

For now, while he waits for the outcome of the hearings, Freshwater is selling Christmas trees. Last week, he said he believes the district is retaliating against him because he advocated for “critical analysis” of evolution in 2003.

“They’ve marked me as a religious—I don’t know if I want to use this phrase about myself—but as a religious fanatic,” Freshwater said.

Freshwater is careful to say he doesn’t object to all elements of evolutionary theory, but would simply like to raise some questions about it. He said that in the 21 years he has been a teacher, he has been using the Tesla coil on students, even though manufacturer instructions warn that it is not to be used on human skin. He said he has never had one complaint until now.

Freshwater said that there is no way to tell whether the photo presented by the Dennis family that shows the mark of a cross on a forearm was doctored, or whether it was even Zachary’s arm.

When asked if he was accusing the family of lying, Freshwater said, “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

While he admits using the device on Zachary, he said he didn’t know if it left a mark.

Not Always a Rural Issue

Despite the gruesome elements, the story is less unusual than at first appears.

According to a poll published this spring in the Public Library of Science Biology, one in eight US high school teachers presents creationism as a valid alternative to evolution.

The poll, conducted by Michael Berkman, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, and his colleagues, also learned that 16 percent of teachers believe in creationism.

While Berkman’s research did not address why so many teachers are creationists, he speculated in an e-mail that biology appeals to even fundamentalist Christians:

 

In Darwin’s day, most biologists felt that they had a calling to describe God’s works. So people of all faith traditions may be drawn to biology, including those whose faith includes a literal interpretation of Genesis. Clearly, a substantial percentage of them are unwilling to accept the geological, chemical, and genetic evidence for an old earth.

 

Jason Wiles, a Syracuse University biology professor whose research focuses on teaching issues related to biological evolution, said he frequently runs into creationists training to be educators.

“It’s not only in the South, or in rural areas,” Wiles said.

Wiles recently held a workshop for 30 science teachers in the Syracuse city school system. Three of the teachers were actively interested in promoting intelligent design.

He suspects that the reason that so few cases make it to the public stage is that many parents aren’t always aware of what’s going on in the classroom. Also, children are often unaware that the teacher has crossed a Constitutional line.

“A lot of times students just don’t know what their rights are,” Wiles said.

Resolution Far Off

On that day in September, Jenifer Dennis had come to Gambier to meet one of the plaintiffs in the Dover case. I was giving a speech at Kenyon College that night about Dover’s battle. Cyndi Sneath, one of the parents from Dover, had ridden out with me from Harrisburg.

As they sat down at the table, Sneath and Dennis began to compare notes, sharing common experiences. Dennis plopped a large file on the table that details the case and starts flipping through pages. She asked Sneath if she had initially realized how demanding and time-consuming being a plaintiff in a First Amendment case would be. Sneath told her she honestly had no idea what to expect.

At first, Jenifer Dennis said she couldn’t tell if she was overreacting to her son’s arm. “I was thinking maybe I’m crazy,” she said. “I was thinking maybe it’s something they do? And it’s OK?”

Dennis and her husband are both Catholic. They are NASCAR fans who camp in an RV at races. Yet, they are being labeled as elitist and intolerant of religion. At one school board meeting in July, numerous parents and teachers spoke in defense of Freshwater and criticized the parents. One parent told the board, “As a Christian, I don’t accept the separation of church and state.”

During the district’s administrative hearing process, Freshwater successfully argued that Zachary’s name be released publicly. So the anonymous status in the family’s lawsuit has now become a moot point, and the recriminations that the family feared have begun with calls and letters.

But Dennis said she has also had friends and strangers come up to her and say that they’re glad they came forward. She said Zachary, who turned fifteen on Dec. 17, is handling the pressure.

But unlike in the Kitzmiller case, in which Sneath and 10 other parents sued the Dover school district, Jenifer Dennis still feels alone in her fight.

She is looking forward to a resolution in the case. When she started this battle a year ago, she never envisioned it would still be going on through another Christmas. “I just need some closure,” she said. But her lawsuit will no doubt drag on for much longer. The trial date is not until May 2010.

laurilebo@gmail.com'

Lauri Lebo is the author of The Devil in Dover: Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, a book about the 2005 First Amendment trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover in which intelligent design was ruled creationism.