By Barry W. Lynn
As I looked out at the 900 students at an assembly at Kearny High School in New Jersey, I told them I had good news and bad news.
“The good news is that if you don’t want to hear about the separation of church and state, this event will be over in 50 minutes,” I said. “The bad news is that I recently attended my 40th high school reunion in nearby Pennsylvania, and in 40 years all of you will look like me.”
Go for the easy laugh first is my motto. The average American high school isn’t likely to have a speaker with a “controversial” viewpoint speak to their entire student body (a second group of 900 came in the next hour at Kearny).
So how did I get there? My appearance was part of an unusual legal settlement. Last year, an 11th-grade student named Matthew LaClair was disturbed that his advanced placement history teacher was devoting class time to telling students to accept Christ or go to hell and observing that Noah had dinosaurs with him on the ark.
Believing this was wildly inappropriate and unconstitutional, LaClair taped the teacher and played it for the principal. Officials at the school responded quickly: They approved a new policy prohibiting students from taping their teachers!
Frustrated, Matthew went to the New Jersey Civil Liberties Union. They threatened a lawsuit, and the matter went into negotiation. The case never made it to trial, in part because Matthew’s First Amendment claim was so clear. A settlement was reached that involved an apology to Matthew and recognition that what he did was helpful.
In addition, the school system agreed to have an in-service training on both the Constitution and evolution for the faculty and to have two speakers discuss these topics at student assemblies.
My friend Dr. Kenneth Miller of Brown University’s Biology Department went to the school in October for an evolution discussion and, with a bit more foot-dragging, the administration had me up in early December to handle church and state.
From the beginning, I told both Matthew and the administration that I would play this very straight: a little history of the religion clauses of the First Amendment and a statement of what the Supreme Court has said about religion in public school and students’ and parental rights to avoid government promotion of faith there.
That’s what I did. After the lecture, many students had questions, and I answered them until time ran out. After the attendees left, a teacher came up to me at the podium and introduced himself. He seemed rather pushy and announced that he didn’t much like what I had to say. He asked why I was allowed to come to the school but he was disciplined for talking about certain topics.
The light bulb went on – this was the aforementioned history teacher, David Paszkiewicz. He asserted that if I read Jefferson and Madison, I’d know the courts were wrong. I explained to him that the federal courts’ reading of those important framers tends to reflect my views, not his.
He went on to complain about specific questions from students that he said I should not have answered. One was from a young woman who asked if you can be religious and accept evolution. I pointed out that many religious figures were in that category (including the late Pope John Paul II) as were many scientists (including Dr. Miller himself). Paszkiewicz suggested my answer was preaching. By this time, the fellow was pretty agitated and the principal had to come over and ask him to leave (presumably to go back and teach history, which he is paid to do).
The response from the students was pretty lively in the first assembly; less so in the second, but still a number of these 9th and 10th graders came up after the speech to ask questions they said they weren’t comfortable stating publicly.
After the event, I had a bagel and coffee with the principal and the area’s school superintendent. They were hospitable and friendly, but after an assurance from each that they thought I had done a fine job, they were clearly more comfortable talking about football than “first principles.” It seemed to me they were most clearly relieved that I hadn’t got the students too riled up, that I didn’t say anything that would be reported back to parents as shocking and that I only obliquely mentioned the incident which had led to the assemblies in the first place.
One thing I did note was that it takes courage to challenge constitutional violations. I mentioned Matthew’s name after a brief summary of the actions of Ellery Schempp in Pennsylvania, whose challenge to Bible readings and prayer in public schools went to the Supreme Court in 1963.
Freedom does not renew itself. I’d like to think that in the future, at least some of the students there that morning will remember what I said about the importance of taking a stand to vindicate constitutional guarantees of liberty.
The rights of the next generation of Americans may well depend upon it.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.