A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted.
Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday. He said he was fired Thursday.
"I'm just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master's degree, a couple actually, have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job," Bitterman said.
Sarah Smith, director of the school's Red Oak campus, declined to comment Friday on Bitterman's employment status. The school's president, Barbara Crittenden, said Bitterman taught one course at Southwest. She would not comment, however, on his claim that he was fired over the Bible reference, saying it was a personnel issue.
"I can assure you that the college understands our employees' free-speech rights," she said. "There was no action taken that violated the First Amendment."
Bitterman, who taught part time at Southwestern and Omaha's Metropolitan Community College, said he uses the Old Testament in his western civilization course and always teaches it from an academic standpoint.
Bitterman's Tuesday course was telecast to students in Osceola over the Iowa Communications Network. A few students in the Osceola classroom, he said, thought the lesson was "denigrating their religion."
"I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn't given any more credibility than any other god," Bitterman said. "I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there."
Bitterman said he called the story of Adam and Eve a "fairy tale" in a conversation with a student after the class and was told the students had threatened to see an attorney. He declined to identify any of the students in the class.
"I just thought there was such a thing as academic freedom here," he said. "From my point of view, what they're doing is essentially teaching their students very well to function in the eighth century."
Hector Avalos, an atheist religion professor at Iowa State University, said Bitterman's free-speech rights were violated if he was fired simply because he took an academic approach to a Bible story.
"I don't know the circumstances, but if he's teaching something about the Bible and says it is a myth, he shouldn't be fired for that because most academic scholars do believe this is a myth, the story of Adam and Eve," Avalos said.
"So it'd be no different than saying the world was not created in six days in science class.
"You don't fire professors for giving you a scientific answer."
Bitterman said Linda Wild, vice president of academic affairs at Southwest, fired him over the telephone.
Wild did not return telephone or e-mail messages Friday. Bitterman said that he can think of no other reason college officials would fire him and that Smith, the director of the campus, has previously sat in on his classes and complimented his work.
"As a taxpayer, I'd like to know if a tax-supported public institution of higher learning has given veto power over what can and cannot be said in its classrooms to a fundamentalist religious group," he said. "If it has ... then the taxpaying public of Iowa has a right to know. What's next? Whales talk French at the bottom of the sea?"