COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Humanist and secular groups on Thursday joined the side of a school board in a court fight over the firing of a public school science teacher who kept a Bible on his desk and was accused of preaching religious beliefs in class.
The Mount Vernon School Board dismissed John Freshwater last year 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.
Two lower courts previously upheld the dismissal, but the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear a portion of Freshwater's claims over his firing.
The court has 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.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from punishing Freshwater for views he expresses in his private life but requires the state prohibit him from pushing his views as a representative of the government, particularly when those views are religious, an attorney for the American Humanist Association and the Secular Student Alliance argued in a court filing Thursday.
"Refusing to teach evolution is reason enough to fire a teacher," the attorney, William Burgess, said in an interview Thursday. "Refusing to just teach the curriculum is reason enough to fire the teacher. Violating the separation of church and state is reason enough to fire the teacher."
The American Humanist Association is a national organization that says there's no proof for the existence of God. The Secular Student Alliance, based in Columbus, says its mission is to "organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics."
Freshwater has argued that leaving the lower-court decisions in place would allow school boards to fire any teacher who includes "additional, age-appropriate information" to broaden students' understanding of the curriculum.
The outcome of the case "holds significant implications for teachers' rights of free speech, free exercise and equal protection under the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution," Freshwater's attorney argued in an April court filing.
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.
The parents of one of those students, Zachary Dennis, sided with the school board Thursday in a court filing.
Stephen and Jenifer Dennis argue Freshwater is downplaying extensive attempts to interject his Christian faith into the classroom, such as backing creationist beliefs, displaying numerous religious items and directing students to a Christian website for research.
Zachary Dennis is now a freshman at an out-of-state college, the parents' attorney, Doug Mansfield, said Thursday. His parents settled a lawsuit against Freshwater in 2010 for $450,000, to be paid by the district's insurer.
Other groups filing arguments on behalf of the school board Thursday were Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the National Center for Science Education.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus .