June 2008 Church & State | People & Events

A New Jersey high school student is speaking out against a civics textbook that inaccurately portrays the state of the law regarding prayer in public schools.

Matthew LaClair, a high school senior in Kearny, N.J., has criticized the book American Government by John J. DiIulio and James Q. Wilson. The text, now in its 11th edition, is used in many public schools nationwide.

“I just realized from my own knowledge that some of this stuff in the book is just plain wrong,” LaClair told the Associated Press.

LaClair brought the book to the attention of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, N.Y. Staff members there prepared a report on the tome, noting its biased treatment of church-state separation and global warming. The book dismisses climate change, asserting that the threat has been overblown by the scientific community.

The book’s discussion of school prayer is simplistic and misleading, parroting Religious Right views. For example, it states that the Supreme Court has ruled “as unconstitutional every effort to have any form of prayer in public schools, even if it is nonsectarian, voluntary or limited to reading a passage of the Bible.”

In fact, the high court has struck down only state-sponsored religious worship in public schools. Students are free to pray or read religious books on their own.

The book also contains a photo of students praying in front of a Virginia high school. The caption reads, “The Supreme Court will not let this happen inside a public school.”

Book coauthor DiIulio was the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and has long been a critic of church-state separation. Wilson is a prominent conservative writer and academic.

The book’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, says some changes have been made. The picture from the Virginia high school has been dropped, and some of the rhetoric questioning global warming has been toned down, staffers at the publishing firm said.

The effort marks LaClair’s second venture supporting church-state separation. Last year, he challenged a history teacher who was promoting religion in class. LaClair secretly taped some of the lectures and presented them to officials at the school. The controversy made national headlines.

Americans United wrote to the school advising officials to tell the teacher to stop, and Lynn later made a presentation about church-state separation there.   

LaClair recently appeared in a program sponsored by Americans United and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation, discussing his activities. (See “Two Thumbs Up!,” May Church & State.)