Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A church-state controversy erupts in New Jersey

Transcript of today's show:

In New Jersey, high school student Matthew LaClair [pictured left] secretly tape-recorded a teacher to prove that he was preaching a pro-Christian, anti-science message to students. The recording affirms this allegation, but reaction to it has been mixed. Defenders of the teacher cite his First Amendment freedom of expression. Others argue that the First Amendment does not allow teachers to promote their private religious convictions in the classroom. [source: New York Times]

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from The New York Times Opinion Page:
The vast majority of Americans deplore such proselytizing in public classrooms. But the truly disturbing aspect of all this, described earlier this month by Times reporter Tina Kelley, is not that one teacher so blatantly crossed the church-state boundary but that so few school officials and community residents seemed bothered by his behavior.

One teacher, who asked not to be named, said Mr. Paszkiewicz “had the right to say what he said, he was not preaching, and that’s something I’m very much against.” The school’s principal says action was taken against Mr. Paszkiewicz but won’t say what. At the same time, he describes Mr. Paszkiewicz as an “excellent teacher,” and says he remains in the classroom. And the town’s electronic bulletin board,, contained many postings supporting the teacher.

The only reason anyone knows about Mr. Paskiewicz’s behavior is that one student, Matthew LaClair, 16, had the courage to speak up in September. Before doing so, he taped Mr. Paszkiewicz for eight classes because he feared officials would not believe him. He has since received one death threat, lost many friends, and says he can “feel the glares” when he goes to school.

Mathew’s father, Paul LaClair, a lawyer, says he is considering legal action unless the school corrects Mr. Paszkiewicz’ misstatements concerning science and straightens out the constitutional issues regarding separation of church and state for the entire student body.

In recent years, the divide between religion and the classroom has been narrowed as conservative courts have ruled in favor of tuition vouchers for religious schools, ruled that religion clubs can meet in public schools and allowed federal money to be spent on computers and other instructional equipment for parochial schools. But even groups like the Rutherford Institute, which provides legal help in religious freedom cases, says that Mr. Paszkiewicz appears to have crossed the line against outright preaching in the public schools.... [more]

from Blog from the Capital:
One of the reasons school boards have policies and the Department of Education has guidelines is to instruct teachers on how to conduct themselves properly and legally *without having to be prompted by a teenager.* If Paszkiewicz indeed said the things he's alleged to have said, they are inappropriate *even if no student in the class is discomforted.* Teachers may not simply do whatever they like so long as nobody complains. But when one does -- and especially as a minor -- he surely deserves the protection of the school and the school board in question from discrimination and harassment.... [more]

from The Lippard Blog:
The website is an online forum for people in Kearny, New Jersey, where U.S. History teacher and Baptist youth pastor David Paszkiewicz has used his Kearny High School classroom (apparently for years) to evangelize students with his own brand of Christianity and conservative politics. I've already commented on how some Kearny High School students have made a poor case defending Paszkiewicz, now I'm afraid the adults of Kearny are no better.

The adults posting at are noteworthy (just like the students) for a complete failure to address the issues raised by Paszkiewicz's actions--they ignore the content of what he's been teaching, they ignore the fact that he lied about what he had done until confronted with the recordings, and they ignore the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, they accuse Matthew LaClair of having set the teacher up, invent new "crimes" like "premeditated entrapment" that they accuse LaClair of having committed by recording the class, and say that he should have been suspended, expelled, or jailed for creating this issue and "embarrassing the town." They say that LaClair, by protesting the Bush administration by refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, "practically spits on our 'Pledge of Allegiance'" and "is free to leave this country if he does not agree with what we stand for!" They claim that Paszkiewicz is "the best teacher to hit town in years" and "A PROUD AMERICAN [who] IS 100% RIGHT!"... [more]

from the Crime & Federalism blog:
Matthew LeClair, a junior at the school, taped the classes, for fear no one would believe what he and his classmates were hearing. The school board is not saying what it has done in response to the teacher's proselytizing, but it does say it has "corrected" the teacher. The student has received at least one death threat. The boy's father is a lawyer, and some townspeople think that the teacher was baited into turning the lectern into a pulpit.

It is one thing to explain the role that religious belief has played in the behavior of the American people. The Great Awakening, for example, had vast social and political consequences. It is quite another thing to try to create an awakening of one's own in a high school history class.

The next time someone does a story about what's wrong with American education, I suggest the situation in Kearney be studied. When we start talking about dinosaurs in an advanced placement course on the Constitution, we're in deep, deep trouble.... [more]