A Student of Uncommon Courage: Matthew LaClair

Matthew LaClair

When Matthew LaClair heard his popular high-school history teacher tell students that only Christians will go to heaven, and that evolution has no basis in science, he knew something was wrong. Unlike most 16-year-olds, he knew it was his duty to do something about it.

Matthew taped the teacher proselytizing in his public school classroom, and insisted that the school take action. Instead, the backlash was swift and furious. The school refused to acknowledge Matthew’s complaint was well-founded, and the superintendent praised the teacher in news reports. Matthew was harassed by fellow students in Kearny, New Jersey. He lost friends and was ostracized.

Matthew and his parents stood firm, and made it clear to the school district that a lawsuit was possible. Finally the school board agreed to a settlement. Teachers and students will be trained about the separation of church and state, and the difference between the scientific theory of evolution and the religious belief in creationism. Months after the whole story began, the school board also agreed to commend Matthew for his "courage and integrity."

People For the American Way Foundation was proud to support Matthew and his family in his battle to protect and preserve constitutional rights for all of us Here’s Matthew, now 18 years old, in his own words:

"I’m happy that it’s over, and I’m very happy that I did it. There were times when it was really tough. When it first came out in the newspaper, and I lost a lot of my friends. But I would have felt a lot worse if I didn’t do something about it.

"It seemed like the school and the school district were against me, and most of the students were against me.

"But I always felt that it was worth doing. If you’re going to take care of a situation like that, you have to go all the way—or don’t bother.

"A lot of the students are just not informed. They’re not aware of their rights. They’re not concerned about the Constitution. Most of them were looked at it on this level: they liked the teacher, or their fiends liked the teacher, so everything he did was okay.

"I think they were a little bit nervous. They didn’t want to be in the same boat with me. Before it all broke, I would ask students in my next class,‘Didn’t the teacher cross the line? Didn’t he go to far?" And they agreed with me.

"But the second this got into the news, I’m seeing these very same students on TV saying he never did anything wrong.

"Most students don’t ask me why I did it. When they do, I try to explain what church and state is. My parents made sure we were exposed to all different kinds of ideas and religion, and that we had respect for other religions.

"Sometimes, I just try to explain it as a matter of simple human kindness. It’s really not a nice thing to say to another person that they belong in hell. And sometimes, I try to explain how wrong it is to dismiss all that important scientific knowledge, especially in school.

"There were 25 kids in that class. I guess I figured that nobody else was taking action, so it was up to me. I believe it’s pretty much any American citizen’s job. When you see something wrong or unjust you have to do something about it. Even if the price may be high, it’s worth it.

"I think people divide the world up and depending on what they believe, they see either troublemakers or heroes. But I don’t think that’s right. I think that’s just what an American citizen is—participating in democracy and protecting what you believe in your heart.

"I’m very pleased we got all the legal help and support we did from People For the American Way Foundation and the other national groups. It was emotional support as well. People around the country knew what was happening and were willing to help me. That meant a lot."

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