COLUMBUS — Nearly two years ago, on June 13, 2008, the Stephen Dennis family of Mount Vernon filed a civil lawsuit with the United States District Court, Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division. The federal suit alleged civil rights violations by the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, the superintendent and middle school principal, and currently suspended middle school science teacher John Freshwater.
The suit claimed actions by the school district and Freshwater “reflect an arbitrary use of governmental power,” and asserts that inaction by the administrators allowed Freshwater to unconstitutionally impose his personal religious teachings and beliefs on students.
On Tuesday, the court ruled on some of the claims and counterclaims, and cleared the way for other issues to go to a jury trial.
In August 2009, the school board’s insurance carrier resolved the lawsuit on behalf of the board, superintendent and principal, and the suit against them was officially dismissed by the court in October 2009.
On Nov. 16, 2009, the Dennis family and Freshwater filed motions for partial summary judgment. Summary judgment is defined by The Electric Law Library as, “A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial. It is used when there is no dispute as to the facts of the case, and one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
The Dennises requested judgment on their battery claim and on both of Freshwater’s counterclaims of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Dennises also moved for partial summary judgment on the Establishment Cause claims. The Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution was intended to prevent the federal government from declaring and financially supporting a national religion and is commonly believed to mean a strict separation of church and state. Subsequent court decisions have ruled that public schools and their employees may not promote a particular religion. The Dennises contend that the presence of the Ten Commandments and Bibles in Freshwater’s classroom effectively endorsed Christianity over other non-religious and religious beliefs.
Freshwater requested summary judgment on the Dennnises’ battery charge.
On Tuesday, the court issued rulings granting, in part, and denying, in part, motions for partial summary judgment from both parties.
Regarding Freshwater’s counterclaim against the Dennises for defamation, the court ruled that statements made in a judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding, such as the termination hearing, are basically protected from defamation charges. The Dennises argued Freshwater must prove they acted with actual malice; court records show Freshwater “has failed to submit any evidence of actual malice.” The court therefore granted the Dennises’ motion in relation to Freshwater’s defamation counterclaim.
The court also issued a summary judgment with regard to Freshwater’s counterclaim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. It ruled that since the alleged slanderous statements referred to in the defamation counterclaim were the purported cause of the distress, that claim fails because the defamation counterclaim failed.
Regarding the Establishment Clause, the court concluded the Dennises have the standing to file their claims of violations of the clause. It also agreed with Freshwater’s contention that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether he violated the Establishment Clause. Freshwater claims the posters of the Ten Commandments and box of Bibles in his classroom were for secular purposes and the court denied the Dennis family’s request for summary judgment on that issue. The court document states, “The court, therefore, will allow a jury to determine whether Freshwater’s stated secular purposes are a sham or are sincere.”
The court denied the Dennis family’s motion related to the claim of battery, and granted Freshwater’s motion as to the student’s consent for the electrical device experiment. It also ruled there are other details regarding the battery allegations that are properly left for the jury to decide.
Pretrial proceedings are expected to be held May 12 or 13; the actual trial against Freshwater is scheduled to begin May 24 in Columbus.
Information about this case is from the district court Case 2:08-cv-00757-GFL-NMK Document 80.