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Originally published Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 11:38 PM

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Ohio court hearing arguments in school Bible case

Attorneys for a fired public school science teacher who kept a Bible on his desk plan to argue before the Ohio Supreme Court that the teacher's dismissal was unconstitutional.

AP Legal Affairs Writer

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COLUMBUS, Ohio —

Attorneys for a fired public school science teacher who kept a Bible on his desk plan to argue before the Ohio Supreme Court that the teacher's dismissal was unconstitutional.

The Mount Vernon School Board dismissed John Freshwater in 2011 after investigators reported he preached Christian beliefs in class when discussing topics such as evolution and homosexuality and was insubordinate in failing to remove the Bible from his classroom.

Freshwater also was accused of using a science tool to burn students' arms with the image of a cross, but that allegation was resolved and was not a factor in his firing.

Two lower courts previously upheld Freshwater's dismissal, but the state Supreme Court agreed to hear a portion of his claims over his firing. The hearing was to be held Wednesday.

The court said Freshwater can argue it is unconstitutional to fire someone without clear guidance on what teaching materials or methods are acceptable. Freshwater also can argue it is unconstitutional to fire someone over the mere presence of a religious text such as the Bible in a classroom.

As an eighth-grade science teacher, Freshwater tried to encourage his students to examine facts and theories and hypotheses and then question them and differentiate between them, his attorney said in a court filing last year.

A voluntary discussion of creationism or "intelligent design" as part of the mandatory discussion of evolution is unquestionably part of a secular education program, attorney Kelly Hamilton wrote.

"Freshwater did not engage in religious proselytization - he discussed a scientific theory that happens to be consistent with the teachings of multiple major world religions," Hamilton wrote.

The board's actions, he concluded, were nothing less "than the censorship of ideas."

Freshwater is getting legal backing from the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group.

Attorneys for the school board countered that Freshwater had long tried to push religion in the classroom.

As far back as 1994, a middle school principal told Freshwater to stop distributing an "Answers in Genesis" pamphlet with information about a creationist organization's upcoming seminar, according to a filing by board attorneys asking the court to uphold Freshwater's firing.

Freshwater also used a handout titled "Survival of the Fakest," to teach his students to doubt science, the board's attorneys said.

"Whenever Freshwater was told by a superior to cease using an inappropriate handout in class, he would simply find another one to use," the board's attorneys said in a filing last fall.

Science education and humanist and secular groups have joined the side of the school board.

The board once concluded Freshwater had used a high-frequency generator, which other teachers have used to demonstrate electrical current, to burn a cross onto a student's arm. The cross lasted a few weeks.

The student's family settled a federal lawsuit against the district in an effort to move on.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus

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