Two Thumbs Up: New Documentary Explores N.J. Classroom Conflict Over Teacher/Preacher

When it comes to religious freedom and church-state separation, some people just don’t get it.

The summer movies are coming out, and our silver screens are already filling up with Snow White, superheroes and spaceships.

If you're in the mood for something a little different, I'd like to recommend a new documentary about religion in public schools that you can watch for free right at your computer.

Some of you might recall the incident behind this film. It occurred in 2006 and involved a public school history teacher in Kearny, N.J., who preached fundamentalist Christianity to his class.

David Paszkiewicz told students, “If you reject [Jesus’] gift of salvation, then you know where you belong” and “[Jesus] 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.”

Paszkiewicz had also promoted creationism in class, telling students that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark.

A student in the classroom, Matthew LaClair, knew this was inappropriate. He also suspected that school officials would not believe him without evidence, so LaClair began recording portions of the classes. Soon he had solid evidence of Paszkiewicz’s in-class proselytizing.

In short order, a media firestorm engulfed the town. The school board’s first reaction to the matter was curious: They quickly passed a new policy – barring students from recording teachers in class. (I should note that LaClair’s actions broke no New Jersey laws.)

Filmmaker Vic Losick has just produced a new documentary, In God We Teach, examining the Kearny incident. The documentary, which runs about an hour, features several quotes by Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. You can watch it here and here.

Losick scored something of a coup: He persuaded Paszkiewicz to sit down for a lengthy on-camera interview. As far as I know, this is the first time Paszkiewicz has discussed the issue publicly (outside of fundamentalist churches, that is).

I was struck by the teacher’s complete and utter inability to engage in any serious form of self-reflection. Losick’s technique is to simply let the characters in this drama tell their stories. He doesn’t take a side. But only a theological ally of Paszkiewicz could see him as anything other than a typical smug and arrogant fundamentalist who believes that he has all of the answers – and that this gives him the right to spread his views in public school classrooms.

Paszkiewicz also comes off as disingenuous. At first, he tried to deny having made the "you belong in hell" statement. But LaClair had it on tape, so that failed. Paszkiewicz then fell back on blaming the students. They asked him about religion, you see, so had to talk to them about it. In the documentary, AU’s Lynn handily explains why this is nonsense.

Watching the documentary, I was reminded of how when it comes to religious freedom and church-state separation, some people just don’t get it. Losick incorporates film clips from raucous school board meetings during which Paszkiewicz’s supporters made all of the standard arguments about majority rule and the need for “Christian” values in schools (as if all Christians agreed on what those values are!) It’s alarming to realize that this took place 10 miles outside of cosmopolitan New York City.

The story has a happy ending – kind of. Facing legal action, the school board apologized to LaClair and his family, and Paszkiewicz was told to stop proselytizing. As part of an out-of-court settlement, the school district agreed to bring in experts from the Anti-Defamation League to brief personnel on church-state law. In addition, Lynn traveled to Kearny and spoke at a special assembly for students and staff where he answered a lot of questions. 

LaClair went on to study journalism at the New School in New York City. Paszkiewicz is still teaching history at Kearny High School. Based on what he says in the documentary, it’s pretty clear that Paszkiewicz hasn’t learned his lesson. One can only hope there are other Matthew LaClairs in the school keeping him honest.

Check out In God We Teach. It’s a fascinating look at how “culture war” issues continue to reverberate in our public schools.