July 21, 2008

No Church-State Separation in Kearny: Matthew LaClair Revisited

When the story of then 16 year-old Matthew LaClair first broke, I was captivated. Perhaps it was because I vividly remember what it was like to be an atheist in school. Or maybe it is because I am now on the other side of things, teaching and observing how atheist students are treated by their peers. I am happy to see that Matthew, now 18, is in the news again. However, I am appalled to learn that Matthew's ordeal 2 years ago "bitterly divides the town of Kearny, a community of about 41,000 that’s located across the Passaic River from Newark." Does this mean that there are still many Americans who failed to learn anything from Matthew's case?

I did not learn of Matthew LaClair until roughly a year ago. Here was how I opened my post about him in July of 2007:
High school is a turbulent time for many, and I think we'd all agree that there are plenty of things that can interfere with the learning process. If you are a high school student or the parent of one, you know the myriad difficulties in navigating this period. But the list of potential obstacles rarely includes the teachers. Imagine that you are a 16 year-old public high school student and one of your teachers spends considerable class time proselytizing, explicitly promoting Jesus, threatening sinners with hell, telling the class that dinosaurs accompanied humans on Noah's ark, and that evolution is a lie. What do you do?
During his junior year at Kearny High School in New Jersey, Matthew found himself in an accelerated history class taught by David Paszkiewicz (public school teacher and Baptist pastor). After his initial complaints about Paszkiewicz's proselytizing were ignored, Matthew bravely taped eight classes. These recordings revealed Paszkiewicz telling his students that their salvation depended on their acceptance of Jesus, "that if they do not believe that Jesus died for their sins, they 'belong in hell'," and that there is no scientific evidence supporting evolution.

When Matthew brought his tapes to school officials, he became the target of harassment and death threats. He was even subject to retaliation by the school administrators who should have been on his side. The even refused to punish the students harassing him.

As the story hit the national media, the school finally agreed to settle. Part of the settlement included providing training for teachers and students on topics such as the scientific basis of evolution and separation of church and state.

Now the Telegram & Gazette (Worchester, Massachusetts) has printed a follow-up on the case, noting that Paszkiewicz (still the youth pastor at Kearny Baptist Church) is still teaching at Kearny High. The part of the report that caught my attention was as follows:
What happened almost two years ago still bitterly divides the town of Kearny, a community of about 41,000 that’s located across the Passaic River from Newark. It also has provided further fodder in the long-running debate about the role of religion in public classrooms.
How could something this obviously inappropriate still be dividing the town? Wouldn't that have to mean that there were still plenty of people in Kearny who believed that Paszkiewicz was somehow in the right and that separation of church and state was invalid? Sadly, that appears to be exactly what it means.

Interviewed for this report, Matthew LaClair said that he was surprised that most of Kearny supported Paszkiewicz. That makes two of us, Matthew. Then again, I am not sure I would describe what I am feeling as surprise. Outrage seems more fitting.

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