Church-state cross-currents

Have you ever considered branding an eighth-grader's arm in the shape of a cross with a high voltage device?

Me neither.

But that's the most lurid of the allegations made against Mount Vernon, Ohio science teacher John Freshwater in a fascinating church-state drama that all highlights creationism, freedom of speech, and how or whether religion can be taught in the classrom. (Freshwater, by the way, denies the cross-branding.)

The rationale for renewed coverage of this case, which has been going on since the spring before last, is the settlement of one lawsuit against the school district (there are other, ongoing lawsuits -- don't expect this one to go away soon).

The family of a student who said a science teacher burned the image of a cross on his arm settled a federal lawsuit with his former school district in their effort to move past the incident, a lawyer said Thursday.

"It's really to put at least this part of the case behind them and to move on with things," said attorney Doug Mansfield of Columbus. "I think they regretted bringing the lawsuit."

The Mount Vernon school board on Wednesday approved a $121,000 settlement with the family of the student identified in the lawsuit only as "James Doe." The agreement would require the district to pay $5,500 to the family and $115,500 to the family's lawyers.

There are a few important questions lurking beneath this case -- but the AP chooses to lead with the most spectacular one --- as opposed to wrestling with the Constitutional dilemmas, or the question of why the school district waited to launch an investigation until they were officially the target of a lawsuit.

How should religion be taught in the public schools -- if at all? And how should school boards handle disputes over teaching religion? Somehow these get lost in the sensational allegations -- and, frankly, mystery. Here and here are a few articles from the Columbus Dispatch when the case became public in 2008. I foundthis quotation from Mount Vernon school superintendent Steve Short very intriguing (italics mine):

"As a public school system," Short said, we 'cannot teach, promote or favor any religion or religious beliefs. Our obligation is not to endorse or establish any religion under the First Amendment, but we have an obligation to protect our students' rights. We are hoping that an independent investigation will get to the truth of the allegations so we can make appropriate decisions as to what should be done going forward."

The allegations about Freshwater are that he argued for a particular, Christian perspective on religion, including, but not limited to the cross-branding incident (s).

But what does it mean to "teach religion" as opposed to "teaching about religion"? As I understand it, it is fine for schools to teach about religions, but not OK for teachers or other staff to advocate for any particular religion. But nowhere is this distinction expressed in the articles I've seen -- and frankly how to teach about religion isn't a settled issue in the public schools, as this writer asserts in an commentary on the website. How many stories have you seen about schools as they grapple with how to teach about religion -- as opposed to stories about teaching creationism or battles over prayer in schools? I can't blame the press alone for covering the creationist battles. A Pew poll from 2005 indicated that many Americans favored teaching creationism along evolution. But I do wonder why the other, more positive ways of approaching teaching about religion get don't get discussed.

Why? Because it's easier and simpler to focus on the more attention-getting allegations rather than seeing this, and other controversies as teachable moments -- places to educate readers about what is still a volatile hot spot in American public life. There's a good possibility, given the lack of clarity about what is and isn't permissible, that such a case will be coming to a district near you.

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