Putting God in his place
Shortly after school began in September, the teacher told his students at the [public] Kearny High School in New Jersey . . . that only Christians had a place in heaven — according to audio recordings made by a student.
—“Talk in Class Turns to God,” The New York Times, Dec. 18, 2006
By the time of the adoption of our Constitution, our history shows that there was a widespread awareness among many Americans of the danger of a union of Church and State. . . . [And] the founders of our Constitution knew that a “union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.”
—Justice Hugo Black, writing for the Supreme Court, Engel v.Vitale, June 25, 1962
When 16-year-old Matthew LaClair, a junior at Kearny (N.J.) High School, 10 miles west of Manhattan, recorded eight lectures by popular teacher David Paszkiewicz in an accelerated American history course, he started a furor not only in his hometown but elsewhere around this country — whose Constitution has been degraded for the past six years by the president and the Republican-controlled Congress, with the acceptance of many of the citizenry, either ignorant of their constitutional liberties or willing to yield them in fear of homicidal terrorists.
Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley, a columnist and a litigator in national-security cases, said in an Oct. 18 interview with MSNBC that history will ask this generation of Americans — who “are strangely silent in this national yawn as our rights evaporate” — “Where were you?”
Matthew LaClair will be able to answer that question proudly, although at present he is a pariah among many of his fellow students at Kearny High — and on his computer, there are curses from outraged Americans around the country. He has even received a death threat.
How dare he covertly record the religious beliefs of this esteemed person — described by school Principal Al Somma as an “excellent teacher. . . . As far as I know, there have never been any problems in the past.” After all, doesn’t teacher David Paszkiewicz have the academic freedom, under the First Amendment, to tell his students — as Tina Kelley reported in the Dec. 18 New York Times (and LaClair himself taped) — that the doors of heaven are closed to nonbelievers in Jesus and that a “specific Muslim girl would go to hell”?
Also, this teacher, in addition to his position at the high school, is a youth pastor at Kearny Baptist Church. Not surprisingly, he told his students at the public, taxpayer-financed Kearny High that “evolution and the Big Bang were not scientific.”
The teacher, after Matthew turned over his recordings to school officials, is no longer religiously proselytizing in class. And Matthew, who tells me he’s lost a lot of friends, adds that he’s “extremely surprised by the hostile opposition” in much of the community.
Matthew did question the teacher’s conclusions in class, but he also felt it necessary to record those statements. “Because otherwise,” he told me, “nobody was going to believe they’d been made. Even now, students in the class, protecting the teacher, say he didn’t say those things.”
While the school’s principal says there has never before been a problem with this teacher, he is now aware — as bloggers around the world are tuning into this fractious constitutional lesson — that this growing problem goes to the heart of the “Establishment Clause” in the First Amendment.
While the First Amendment insists there be no law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, it also forbids any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”
What that means was clearly explained in a New Jersey case, Everson v. Board of Education (1947), by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black:
“Neither a state nor the Federal Government can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. . . . No tax, in any amount, large or small” — such as those that fund Kearny High — “can be levied to support any religious activities . . . or teach or practice religion.”
And, in speaking of public schools, Justice Felix Frankfurter put it as plainly as possible why Matthew LaClair is so valuably instructing his high school and the nation as he stands up for the Constitution — even as some of his friends forsake him. There must be, said Frankfurter, “strict confinement of the state to instruction other than religious, leaving to the individual’s church and home indocrination in the faith of his choice.” (Emphasis added.) Also left to our choice is to have no religious faith at all. The Constitution protects atheists, too.
To those in and out of Kearny, N.J., who scorn and rebuke Mathew LaClair, I urge attention to what Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote, as it applies to the teacher Mathew recorded:
“We start down a rough road when we begin to mix compulsory education with compulsory godliness.”
Matthew’s own road is currently, as he puts it, “a little tough.” He continues, “My faith is in this democracy we have in America, but we have to work at it to keep it. I don’t want to see this kind of teaching in this school now, or when I leave, or anywhere across this country.”
He then read to me from a booklet, “The Program of Studies at Kearny High School,” that, he says, every student receives. Among the goals of instruction are “to think critically [and] understand the role of a good citizen in the practice of democratic ideas and ideals.”
In view of Matthew LaClair’s outstanding dedication to those goals, I would hope that Principal Al Somma would call a school-wide assembly at which to present Mathew with an award named for the chief architect for the First Amendment, James Madison, who started his road to the Constitution at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).
James Madison said of the First Amendment that it “strongly guarded . . . the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States.” If he were still here, I think Mr. Madison might well be glad to meet Matthew LaClair.
Published with the permission of Nat Hentoff. May be linked to but not republished without Hentoff’s permission. Originally posted on The Village Voice Web site on Jan. 1. Hentoff is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher and also writes for The Washington Times.