On The Docket: ‘David V. Goliath’
Local Attorney Defends Ohio Teacher’s Right To Raise Evolution Doubts
Posted: March 2, 2013
Attorney Rita Dunaway argued a case in the Ohio Supreme Court on behalf of John Freshwater, an Ohio science teacher who was fired after being accused of espousing creationism in the classroom. Freshwater gave Dunaway a pouch with “five smooth stones” to symbolize her uphill fight for academic freedom. (Photos by Michael Reilly)
Harrisonburg-area attorney Rita Dunaway was assigned the job of representing fired Ohio teacher John Freshwater by the Rutherford Institute. It was her first full-scale pleading before a state supreme court.
Local lawyer Rita Dunaway believes teachers and students need the freedom to “explore ideas and viewpoints” in class.
In 2011, the school board in Mount Vernon, Ohio, fired John Freshwater for what it said was a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Freshwater, the board alleges, waved a Bible at his students and failed to remove it from his classroom, and also promoted creationism in teaching evolution during eighth-grade science lessons.
His firing made national headlines, as has his effort to be reinstated. A local court in Ohio and an appeals court have upheld his dismissal.
On Wednesday, with Harrisonburg-area attorney Dunaway carrying the torch of academic freedom and fighting censorship and a perceived hostility toward religion, the case reached the Ohio Supreme Court.
A night earlier, Freshwater delivered a fruit basket to Dunaway in her Columbus, Ohio, hotel room.
With it came the leather pouch and five stones.
“It was symbolic of David versus Goliath,” she said. “[The case] is very much a David-versus-Goliath battle. We’re fighting against the school board and all the deference courts usually give to school divisions.”
A ruling is expected in the coming weeks.
Dunaway, 35, is assigned to the case through her employer, the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group based in Charlottesville.
Her roughly 40-minute argument to the seven Ohio justices was her first full-scale pleading before a state Supreme Court. To prepare, Dunaway familiarized herself with more than 6,000 pages of court records and all case studies referenced within.
“We don’t shy away from a case just because there’s not a lot of good precedents,” Dunaway said of Rutherford. “I really love that about my job.”
After graduating from Washington & Lee University School of Law in 2001, she joined Harrisonburg law firm Clark & Bradshaw. Dunaway said she quickly realized she wanted a law career that was more “directly about justice and truth.”
She approached the Rutherford Institute and was hired.
‘Big Picture’ Concerns
Freshwater, 56, now teaches at a private school in Ohio, but wishes to be reinstated by the Mount Vernon School Board.
School officials say Freshwater preached Christian beliefs on topics such as evolution and homosexuality, using a handout titled “Survival of the Fakest” to teach his students to doubt science.
Dunaway argues that Freshwater offered students information about gaps in evolution theory, simply presenting them arguments for and against the idea.
“There’s nothing religious about it,” she said. “It’s about gaps in the fossil record.”
To the school board’s contention that Freshwater waved his Bible in class, Dunaway says students have debunked that accusation. Also, she notes that in Freshwater’s 21-year career, students scored high on standardized tests, including on the topic of evolution.
“The more I dug into it,” Dunaway said, “the more I was convinced that he had been wronged.”
The “big picture” ramifications of the case include ensuring that schools do not become “enclaves of totalitarianism,” she said.
“Show me a classroom where teachers [only] read from the textbook … and I’ll show you a school where students hate to go. It’s dreadfully dull and boring,” Dunaway said. “Teachers and students need to be free in the classroom to explore ideas and viewpoints. … That’s where real learning happens. It’s not through censorship.”
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