Kearny teen continues church-state challenge

Kearny teen continues church-state challenge

Some educators have recently come under fire for expressing their religious views in public schools.

"Public school teachers and coaches wield enormous influence over their students and it is critical they do not use that authority — authority granted to them by the government — to create an environment where children of different faiths or no faith are made to feel unequal," said Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office.

For Matthew LaClair, the 18-year-old Kearny High School senior who made headlines last year when he challenged the district on a teacher’s preaching in class, the fight has moved beyond his own district. This time he is taking on a textbook distributed nationwide.

LaClair is taking issue with "American Government," a textbook by James Q. Wilson and John J. DiIulio. The authors claim three times that students may not pray in public schools. But while the law prohibits schools from leading students in prayer, it does not prohibit students from praying in schools. Another statement in the book paints a negative picture of scientists who are concerned by global warming.

"It’s so disappointing to me that since ‘005, when this edition of the textbook was published, nobody has come forward to correct these errors," LaClair said Tuesday.

With the help of the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit organization that defends the role of science in society, LaClair is fighting to have the text corrected. While he is concerned about the unbalanced treatment in the text of global warming advocates, the role of prayer in schools is a subject he is very close to.

Last year LaClair recorded social studies teacher David Paszkiewicz’s debates with students in his class. According to LaClair, Paszkiewicz told students they belong in hell if they reject Jesus, dinosaurs were on Noah’s ark, and the theories of evolution and the Big Bang were ridiculous and unscientific. The administration dismissed LaClair’s complaints until they heard the recordings he had made of the class.

Although LaClair maintained his right to sue the district, he resisted that option. At one point, People magazine told LaClair that it would do a story, but only if LaClair filed suit. The parties reached an agreement last summer to avoid litigation.

"We’re looking to do what is required by law [and] making sure everybody understands what those requirements are," Kearny Superintendent Robert P. Mooney said on Tuesday. "Our district has trained our teachers to make sure everybody’s up to speed."

The district adopted a new policy in August that outlines how a student brings forward concerns within the district and how they are received. According to the policy, "no retaliation will be tolerated against any student for bringing forth a concern."

The Anti-Defamation League held two training sessions for the district’s teachers. The first, held in the fall, was geared toward all the teachers while the second, held in the winter, was aimed specifically at social studies teachers.

"The general curriculum was … on religion in the public schools," said Neuer. "It recognized religious freedom is a critical subject. Students have to focus on their own constitutional rights."

Despite the training, LaClair said that his former teacher has not changed and nobody is standing up to him. He has heard from others now in class with Paszkiewicz that the social studies teacher is still espousing his religious views in class.

"I’m certainly glad I did it. It’s just disappointing to hear from students that he’s continuing to do this and nobody’s willing to do anything about it," LaClair said. However, he added, he understands the hesitation of his fellow students. "They’re scared to do anything about it due to what they saw me go through last year," he said, noting that he lost friends and many teachers stopped talking to him. "A lot of times, this kind of stuff goes on but people are too scared to challenge it."

Getting students to speak up is a major concern, Neuer said. "There may be situations at schools in which problems exist and yet nobody’s complaining about it."

"The more people who do stand up and face that challenge," LaClair said, "the easier it is for the next person," he said. "At least I’ve been able to pave the way for a student in the future to come forward."

East Brunswick High School is dealing with similar issues of religion. A football coach, Marcus Borden, has been under fire recently for joining his team and cheerleaders in prayer before games.

As part of the Interfaith Alliance, the ADL submitted a statement during the litigation expressing its concerns. The Third Circuit United States Court of Appeals ruled April 15 that Borden did not have a constitutional right to pray with team members at the school.

"We welcomed the decision by the Court of Appeals that the coach could not lead or join his players in prayer," Neuer said. "We felt that a teacher is an employee of the state and by taking a knee with his players he was in fact creating a coercive situation."

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