2008 Youth Scholar - Matthew LaClair, Kearny High School, Kearny, NJ
"The courage and commitment to civil liberties Matt displayed, especially against the resistance of his peers, teachers, and principal, made him an undisputed nominee for this scholarship. He is certainly a young person whose belief in civil liberties is second nature."
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Matthew LaClair, of Kearny, NJ, stood up for religious freedom and the separation of church and state in the face of ridicule and opposition. During his junior year in high school, Matthew had a history teacher who promoted creationism and other personal religious beliefs in the classroom. When Matthew confronted the teacher and asked the school officials to address this, he became the target of harassment and even a death threat from fellow students. Despite this opposition, Matthew worked with the ACLU of New Jersey to make sure that the First Amendment is respected and upheld at his high school. Matthew won the battle at his school and thanks in large part to his advocacy, the Student Education Assembly on Religious Freedom was created at his high school so that all members of the school community will understand their rights and responsibilities.
Matthew's Scholarship Essay
Since my freshman year in High School, I have taken part in defending civil liberties. I have sat down during the flag salute since my freshman year to protest what I see as mindless conformity, and I wear protest buttons to school. I faced many problems, mostly from teachers and administrators, due to my protest of the flag salute. I was yelled at by a janitor who called me a communist and said that I was spitting on the soldiers.
In my freshman year, a teacher yelled at me in front of the class for sitting quietly during the flag salute. She screamed that I was being disrespectful and unpatriotic. I explained to her that I had the right to sit and two days later, I explained that because she yelled at me in from of the class, she would have to apologize and explain in front of the class. That afternoon, she did apologize.
Another teacher asked me during my sophomore year to stand during the flag salute and I explained why I had the right to sit. She accepted that, but a few days later, another student in my class began to sit during the flag salute. She quietly came over to him and used her authority as a teacher to scare him into standing. I do not think she pressured this student knowingly, but a teacher can have an amazing amount of force if used a certain way. I told her that she had no right to try to make him, but she would not listen to me during class. I waited until after class and I spoke to her. She never bothered the student again, but the student was now too nervous to sit during the flag salute. It was disappointing, but I felt I did all that I could.
My main action regarding the protection of civil liberties began in September of my junior year. My U.S. history teacher began preaching his religion and politics in class. The teacher said things such as "if you reject the lord's salvation, you belong in hell" and he told the students that the evolutionary theory and the big bang theory are not science, while promoting biblical creationism. These kinds of statements occurred non-stop for five days, and what is mentioned above is only the tip of a very large iceberg.
As an American citizen, I strongly believe in Separation of Church and State and civil liberties, and I realized that it was my obligation to expose this behavior. I could have asked to be removed from the class and avoided the whole situation, but I was and I am concerned about the integrity of education.
On the third day of classes, I began to audio-tape the classes to attain solid evidence and informed the principal about the teacher's behavior. When confronted in the principal's office, the teacher denied ever making the statements, and accused me of not telling the truth. I was bullied, intimidated and harassed for about one hour, and the principal did nothing to stop it. At the end of this meeting I produced the recordings and the last thing the teacher said was "you got the big fish."
After this incident, I tried to deal with the situation by writing letters through the chain of command to the principal, the Board attorney, the Superintendent and the Board of Education. There were no responses to my concerns.
A month later the story ran in the media. I lost many friends and was taunted by other students throughout the year. I received a death threat from a student and many people in my town turned against me. I went to board meetings to speak, and most of the people that showed up believed the teacher was right. These people yelled while others were speaking and accused me of many things. In mid-January, the board adopted a policy that prohibited students for recording their classes without permission from the teacher and knowledge of all the students. It was clear that the Board of Education did not fully agree with my position. After approximately six months and more media coverage, the Board gave us exactly what we originally asked for in October and consequently, much more because the situation had dramatically changed due to all the media attention. Church/State separation and the sciences are being taught to the teachers and students by highly qualified educators that I contacted. The Anti-Defamation League has taught the teachers on these important subjects. Assemblies throughout the year are being done by Dr. Charles Liu, an associate at the Hayden Planetarium, Dr. Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and the lead witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial two years ago, and Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
This entire experience has and is changing me in many ways. I received a deeper insight into legal matters and the separation of church and state, I did something good for my school and town, met many people, became a better public speaker, was offered a summer job, received multiple awards and the list goes on and on.
I believe strongly in civil liberties. It appears as if many people today do not really care about them. Many claim to have a strong concern for civil liberties, but if they are faced with a situation where they can stand up for them, they will back away due to fear. Americans must start to show more concern, otherwise we could lose our civil liberties.
I hope that what I did encourages others to stand up for civil liberties. I want to take what I have learned from this situation and apply it to other situations I will experience in my life. I now have a greater chance of making a bigger difference in the world, and I think that the experience will serve to expand my abilities further.