By Nathan Bupp
Vice President of Communications for the Center for Inquiry
Matthew LaClair, student president of the Center for Inquiry's campus outreach initiative, recently alerted us that his former history teacher, David Paszkiewicz, is at it again. You may recall Mr. Paskiewicz—he’s the one who was recorded by LaClair telling students that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark and if “you reject the Lord’s salvation, you belong in hell,” as reported by the New York Times on December 18, 2006
. This time, he is acting as the advisor of a Christian club at Kearny High School, called the Alpha and Omega Club, which has scheduled an interesting and troubling field trip.
It seems that the club scheduled a field trip June 5 through June 7 to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. LaClair learned about the field trip about two weeks ago while reading the Kearny High School newspaper. Flabbergasted by what he had discovered, LaClair began his own investigation, discovering that the educational rationale provide by Paszkiewicz for this trip was to expose students to “the science behind creationism.” With that justification, it was approved by the Department Head and the Principal, as well as the Board of Education.
LaClair immediately raised a protest by contacting the Board attorney of the Kearny School District (10 miles outside of Manhattan in New Jersey). With the help of Barry Lynn (of Americans United) and the law firm of Willkie, Farr, and Gallagher, LaClair was successful in convincing the school board to postpone the beginning of the trip, thereby assuring that students and faculty would only be involved outside of school hours. LaClair was also successful in getting the Kearny School District to remove from their Web site the Christian Alpha and Omega Club listing under the ostensibly secular “History and Social Science” department.
Troubling issues remain however.
For one thing, these events suggest that school administrators were seriously asleep at the wheel. It took a 19 year old student, who doesn’t even go to the school anymore, to find out, investigate, and raise questions about the trip. The Department Head and Principal both saw the initial field trip request form, and did nothing. The Board of Education either was not watching closely enough or did just not care. Either way, they approved the trip.
In a letter sent to Kearny School Board attorney Kenneth J. Lindenfelser from the law firm of Willkie, Farr, and Gallagher (a firm retained by the LaClair family in the past) attorney Richard Mancino writes: “We are disappointed to find that the administrators of Kearny High School have so cavalierly acquiesced in conduct that, once again, threatens to trespass the boundary between church and state. This is all the more surprising in light of the prior experience with Mr. Paszkiewicz which led to the School Board’s entering into the 2007 Settlement and endorsing the training on the impermissible promotion of religion.”
What we have now is a situation where a public school teacher with strong religious convictions and a record of proselytizing is being allowed to serve as the advisor of a religious club and use his position to have a public school approve a patently religious-based fieldtrip. It is permissible, under certain conditions, to have religious clubs in public schools, but their faculty advisors are supposed to be neutral. The School Board has apparently decided that Paszkiewicz can be a "neutral” advisor to the Alpha and Omega Club, but his ability to remain neutral seems questionable at best, especially in light of his past behavior. Paszkiewicz has overtly and repeatedly discussed and promoted religious beliefs with his students in the past, and his proposed fieldtrip to the Creation Museum demonstrates that he continues to do so today, dangerously blurring the line between his own personal faith commitments and his obligations as a teacher in a government-funded public school system.
The Center for Inquiry has urged school administrators and the Kearny School Board to carefully investigate what appears to be a blatant disregard on the part of Mr. Paszkiewicz for the Establishment Clause and the constitutional constraints it places on proselytizing to students on behalf of his own personal religious beliefs.