Talk in Class Turns to God, Setting Off Public Debate on Rights

KEARNY, N.J. — Before David Paszkiewicz got to teach his accelerated 11th-grade history class about the United States Constitution this fall, he was accused of violating it.

Shortly after school began in September, the teacher told his sixth-period students at Kearny High School that evolution and the Big Bang were not scientific, that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark, and that only Christians had a place in heaven, according to audio recordings made by a student whose family is now considering a lawsuit claiming Mr. Paszkiewicz broke the church-state boundary.

“If you reject his gift of salvation, then you know where you belong,” Mr. Paszkiewicz was recorded saying of Jesus. “He did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he’s saying, ‘Please, accept me, believe.’ If you reject that, you belong in hell.”

The student, Matthew LaClair, said that he felt uncomfortable with Mr. Paszkiewicz’s statements in the first week, and taped eight classes starting Sept. 13 out of fear that officials would not believe the teacher had made the comments.

Since Matthew’s complaint, administrators have said they have taken “corrective action” against Mr. Paszkiewicz, 38, who has taught in the district for 14 years and is also a youth pastor at Kearny Baptist Church. However, they declined to say what the action was, saying it was a personnel matter.

“I think he’s an excellent teacher,” said the school principal, Al Somma. “As far as I know, there have never been any problems in the past.”

Staci Snider, the president of the local teacher’s union, said Mr. Paszkiewicz (pronounced pass-KEV-ich) had been assigned a lawyer from the union, the New Jersey Education Association. Two calls to Mr. Paszkiewicz at school and one to his home were not returned.

In this tale of the teacher who preached in class and the pupil he offended, students and the larger community have mostly lined up with Mr. Paszkiewicz, not with Matthew, who has received a death threat handled by the police, as well as critical comments from classmates.

Greice Coelho, who took Mr. Paszkiewicz’s class and is a member of his youth group, said in a letter to The Observer, the local weekly newspaper, that Matthew was “ignoring the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gives every citizen the freedom of religion.” Some anonymous posters on the town’s electronic bulletin board, Kearnyontheweb.com, called for Matthew’s suspension.

On the sidewalks outside the high school, which has 1,750 students, many agreed with 15-year-old Kyle Durkin, who said, “I’m on the teacher’s side all the way.”

While science teachers, particularly in the Bible Belt, have been known to refuse to teach evolution, the controversy here, 10 miles west of Manhattan, hinges on assertions Mr. Paszkiewicz made in class, including how a specific Muslim girl would go to hell.

“This is extremely rare for a teacher to get this blatantly evangelical,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit educational association. “He’s really out there proselytizing, trying to convert students to his faith, and I think that that’s more than just saying I have some academic freedom right to talk about the Bible’s view of creation as well as evolution.”

Even some legal organizations that often champion the expression of religious beliefs are hesitant to support Mr. Paszkiewicz.

“It’s proselytizing, and the courts have been pretty clear you can’t do that,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a group that provides legal services in religious freedom cases. “You can’t step across the line and proselytize, and that’s what he’s done here.”

The class started on Sept. 11, and Matthew quickly grew concerned. “The first couple of days I had him, he had already begun discussing his religious point of view,” Matthew, a thin, articulate 16-year-old with braces and a passion for politics and the theater, recalled in an interview. “It wasn’t even just his point of view, it went beyond that to say this is the right way, this is the only way. The way he said it, I wasn’t sure how far he was going to go.”

On the second day of taping, after the discussion veered from Moses’s education to free will, Matthew asked why a loving God would consign humans to hell, according to the recording.

Some of Matthew’s detractors say he set up his teacher by baiting him with religious questions. But Matthew, who was raised in the Ethical Culture Society, a humanist religious and educational group, said all of his comments were in response to something the teacher said.

“I didn’t start any of the topics that were discussed,” he said.

In a Sept. 25 letter to the principal, Matthew wrote: “I care about the future generation and I do not want Mr. Paszkiewicz to continue preaching to and poisoning students.” He met with school officials and handed over the recordings.

Matthew’s family wrote four letters to the district asking for an apology and for the teacher to correct any false statements he had made in class, particularly those related to science. Matthew’s father, Paul LaClair, a lawyer, said he was now considering legal action against the district, claiming that Mr. Paszkiewicz’s teachings violated their son’s First Amendment and civil rights, and that his words misled the class and went against the curriculum.

Kenneth J. Lindenfelser, the lawyer for the Kearny school board, said he could not discuss Mr. Paszkiewicz specifically, but that when a complaint comes in about a teacher, it is investigated, and then the department leader works with the teacher to correct any inappropriate behavior.

The teacher is monitored, and his or her evaluation could be noted, Mr. Lindenfelser said, adding that if these steps did not work, the teacher could be reprimanded, suspended or, eventually, fired.

As for the request that Mr. Paszkiewicz correct his statements that conflict with the district’s science curriculum, “Sometimes, the more you dwell on the issue, the more you continue the issue,” Mr. Lindenfelser said. “Sometimes, it’s better to stop any inappropriate behavior and move on.”

The district’s actions have succeeded, he said, as the family has not reported any continued violations.

Bloggers around the world have called Matthew courageous. In contrast, the LaClairs said they had been surprised by the vehemence of the opposition that local residents had expressed against Matthew.

Frank Viscuso, a Kearny resident, wrote in a letter to The Observer that “when a student is advised by his ‘attorney’ father to bait a teacher with questions about religion, and then records his answers and takes the story to 300 newspapers, that family isn’t ‘offended’ by what was said in the classroom — they’re simply looking for a payout and to make a name for themselves.” He called the teacher one of the town’s best.

However, Andrew Lewczuk, a former student of Mr. Paszkiewicz, praised his abilities as a history teacher but said he regretted that he had not protested the religious discussions. “In the end, the manner in which Mr. Paszkiewicz spoke with his students was careless, inconsiderate and inappropriate,” he wrote to The Observer. “It was an abuse of power and influence, and it’s my own fault that I didn’t do anything about this.”

One teacher, who did not give his name, said he thought both Matthew and his teacher had done the right thing. “The student had the right to do what he did,” the man said. As for Mr. Paszkiewicz, “He had the right to say what he said, he was not preaching, and that’s something I’m very much against.”

Matthew said he missed the friends he had lost over his role in the debate, and said he could “feel the glares” when he walked into school.

Instead of mulling Supreme Court precedents, he said with half a smile, “I should be worrying about who I’m going to take to the prom.”

Source:
New York Times, USA
Dec. 18, 2006
Tina Kelley
www.nytimes.com
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Keyword(s): Topic(s): Schools and Religion

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