Religious Bigotry Caught Red-Handed

November has been quite the month for feeling schadenfreude. Between Kent Hovind’s conviction, Ted Haggard’s spectacular fall from grace, and the Republicans’ crushing loss in the midterm elections, atheists have had much to rejoice over, and our political adversaries much occasion to mourn. And now, there is another encouraging piece of news where the good guys win.

According to the Lippard Blog, which came to my attention via Pharyngula, a religious bigot who is a high-school teacher has been caught red-handed abusing his classroom authority to proselytize his students.

Self-described conservative Baptist David Paszkiewicz used his history class to proselytize biblical fundamentalism over the course of several days at the beginning of this school year.

Among his remarks in open class were statements that a being must have created the universe, that the Christian Bible is the word of God, and that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark. If you do not accept Jesus, he flatly proclaimed to his class, “you belong in hell.” Referring to a Muslim student who had been mentioned by name, he lamented what he saw as her inevitable fate should she not convert. In an attempt to promote biblical creationism, he also dismissed evolution and the Big Bang as non-scientific, arguing by contrast that the Bible is supported by what he calls confirmed biblical prophecies.

But what makes this story particularly delicious is how this outrageous behavior was caught, thanks to a brilliant stratagem from a clever student:

After taking the matter to the school administration, one of Paszkiewicz’s students, junior Matthew LaClair, requested a meeting with the teacher and the school principal… After two weeks, a meeting took place in the principal’s office, wherein Paszkiewicz denied making many of these comments, claiming that LaClair had taken his remarks out of context. Paszkiewicz specifically denied using the phrase, “you belong in hell.” He also asserted that he did nothing different in this class than he has been doing in fifteen years of teaching.

At the end of the meeting, LaClair revealed that he had recorded the remarks, and presented the principal with two compact discs. The teacher then declined to comment further without his union representative.

May I take this opportunity to offer Mr. LaClair a hearty round of applause. Well done indeed, sir! Your quick thinking and foresight have unmasked a bullying religious bigot for who he is and spared potentially hundreds of students from unconstitutional religious indoctrination.

Matthew LaClair should be a shoo-in for a First Amendment Hero award from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, should he choose to accept it. To judge by his own published writings on other topics, he is a courageous and principled young man and thoughtful well beyond his years, defending controversial positions with eloquence and sincerity. I think we can expect great things from him in the future.

And what of David Paszkiewicz? If the account presented by Lippard is accurate, Paszkiewicz has utterly forfeited the trust bestowed on public school teachers and abused his authority in the most shameful and outrageous way imaginable. If he is guilty, he should immediately resign his position, or be fired if he will not. More, if he is guilty he should never be allowed to teach public school again, for two reasons: first, because his intentionally deceptive denial is utterly beyond the pale of any acceptable standard of behavior for a figure of trust such as a teacher, and gives a strong suggestion that he would do the same thing again if he thought he could get away with it; and second, because even if he did not repeat his behavior, his authority would be so compromised as to leave him unable to effectively lead a class. Any disgruntled student could make a similar accusation against him and the school would have little choice but to accept that claim.

One wonders how a Christian could justify such behavior even in their own mind. Does the Bible not contain a clear injunction against bearing false witness? Being asked whether one has said certain things, and deliberately lying in response, would violate that commandment by any reasonable standard. On the other hand, the Bible also contains endorsements of deception when it is done in the name of God; for example, the Old Testament story of Rahab, who is rewarded for lying to her pagan neighbors to protect two Israelite spies in her midst. There are many examples of this ends-justifies-the-means theology in Christianity throughout history, most notably among today’s religious right, many prominent members of which seem to believe that winning converts is a goal that justifies virtually any action taken to bring it about. (C.S. Lewis, though his beliefs were not exactly the same as the American right, wrote in one of his books that Christian evangelists should deliberately omit mention of the divisions within Christianity, lest they dissuade a potential convert.)

It would be far too broad and unfair a generalization to say that all Christians engage in this type of dishonest behavior, but clearly there are many who do. Unlike the fundamentalists who want to ban gays, atheists and sometimes all non-Christians from all positions of public authority, I will not return the insult; I would never advocate any misguided measure to exclude Christians from these positions because of the dishonest actions of a few. Every individual deserves to have their behavior judged on its own merits. On the other hand, there are some vipers in the bunch, which is why we will always need watchful individuals like Matthew LaClair standing ready to catch them in the act. The abolitionist and orator Wendell Phillips’ words are as true today as on the day they were spoken: Eternal vigilance is still the price of liberty.

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  • Alex Weaver

    *reads Matthew’s letter, whistles* damn. I got a lotta catchin’ up to do…

  • valhar2000

    Nice, that kid. I fear, though, that his efforts will come to naught; that teacher will receive such overwhleming support from the parents who rely on him to indoctrinate their children that he will be given a loophole he can slide his slimy, slinking body through.

  • Hailey

    I applaud to that bright student.
    As alarming as this story is, things like this are constantly taking place around the United States. Also, censorship from atheistic or evolutionist ideals in the school system is a problem that I wish to see someday resolved. I’m sick of listening to a well-rounded lecture only to have it stumble when the professor must dodge around the idea of evolution or the big-bang theory. This happens in my town anyway, where religion has a profound stronghold. Anyway, I am very happy that at least one of those religious bigots has been caught. However, I fear that valhar2000 may well be right in his prediction…

  • John Locke

    I agree.

  • John P

    Nice to see this, but the kid need to be careful. In some states, what he did (secretly recording the words of the teacher) would be a criminal act. If it is against the law, you can bet your bottom dollar the teacher will use that to weasal out of the situation.

  • Infophile

    In an ideal justice system, the fact that the evidence was obtained illegally would have no bearing on the case (assuming it’s still reliable). Of course, then whoever did obtain it illegally would also faces charges.

    Does our justice system work this way? Not quite yet; they’re still in the “Two wrongs make a right” mentality.

  • Doug Purdie

    Spot-Friggin’-On InfoPhile!!! I have been banging that drum for years. Quit pretending to not know the truth because you dislike the way in which it was found!

  • Kate

    Three cheers for brave LaClair! I wonder if his MP3s recorded the sounds of jaws hitting the floor at the words “Dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s Ark”.

    At the risk of being labeled another contrarian college kid, I’m currently in a lecture class on human evolution. Today we covered Neanderthal biology and I asked my professor what creationists did with Neanderthals. I used to teach physics to little kids, so I’m well-versed in the “Young Earth” brand of pseudoscience. But honestly, how can any reasonable person look at a Neanderthal skull and not notice that it’s not quite human, but certainly not ape. My professor promised we will specifically cover this soon- I’m excited to learn more about debunking “scientific”-sounding creationists besides staring at them in horror and disdain!

  • andrea

    Romans chapter 3 is pretty straight foreward when it says that you shouldn’t lie for God. I’ve killed more threads on religious forums when I bring this chapter up.

  • Sam the Librarian

    As to the legality of the recording. I believe that most areas recognize that you do not need to tell anyone when you are speaking with no expectation of privacy (i.e. you are speaking in public or in a public capacity). A teacher speaking to a class is effectively speaking in such a manner. His speech is fair game.

  • Ebonmuse

    Also, New Jersey is a one-party state, meaning that you are not required to obtain consent from both sides of a conversation before taping that conversation.

  • The Ridger

    Well, technically the “false witness” means perjury – and it’s “against your neighbor”. Lying to strangers is clearly approved of by God – read practically any story featuring Abraham and Sarah, for instance.

  • Paul LaClair

    John P.,

    I am Matthew’s father. I have been practicing law for 29 years. New Jersey is a one-party consent state, meaning he was entirely within his rights to record the classes. He would never have done it without consulting me.

  • Jeromy

    Nice blog. Good kid! I have a bunch of the little critters, so I know a good one when I *see* one. The big problem today is that when christians hear of something like this, the popular lie of the day is, “Oh, then he isn’t a REAL christian. A REAL christian would not do that.” This same attitude is displayed whenever, under any circumstance, a “not-real” christian develops a case of the dumb-ass. Sick, I tell you! How quick they are to throw their brother to the dogs when natural human frailties drag him down! Certainly, the cause of this man’s wrongdoing is not religion, but only what we all suffer from, being human. For my part, I hope the man sees the wrong he has done and becomes a better person for it. Thank you Mr. LaClair, and please continue to reproduce : ) (Long comment – sorry)

  • Alex Weaver

    That’s your idea of a “long comment?”

    I can only imagine what you think of mine…

  • Lauren Matthews

    As a lifelong raised and strongly functioning Agnostic- who am I to say there is a god or not, as I surely don’t want to hear from the uneducated and non-truthseeking bible beaters of the all mighty absolute male and his ‘reign of terror’ that there is. I am very impressed with this young man and his courage. I hope that we not only force the issue for ourselves to have these psychotic rantings removed from our public schools, though just as importantly for our fellow man whom do believe in a higher power that doesn’t coincide with one of the worlds newest religious bandwagons- Christianity! As I personally believe “religion is the opium of the masses”, and no I am not a NeoFreudean and never will be, we all need to remember that we are a contry founded against religious condemnation and to maintain that freedom we need not PREACH one way… we need to educate ourselves on every variety of religion including that of none. I thank Matthew for standing up for whats right because chances are there were many students uncomfortable with the surroundings as they were… he’s really done a justice for us all!

  • Lauren Matthews

    FYI Matthew- though I now live in Charlotte, I am from NJ myself and petitioned Haddonfield HS in 1993 to have the early morning “prayer groups” removed from our school. It was a public HS and used the stance I took was that if the administration was not interested in listening to an “atheist devil”, as they saw me with my long blond hair and loafers ironically, then they need to focus on the comfort of their Jewish students whom are outcasted. It took a while, they used the excuse of a neighboring town loosing their “juggling club” when they banned public school prayer groups- but eventually it disbanded. I know it’s one piece at a time, but remember my friend- that’s just how you eat an elephant and trust me… he’s in the room :)