February 21, 2007

Willkie partners with the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Way Foundation in high-profile matter involving the Constitutional separation of church and state.

Willkie has partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Way Foundation in a high-profile civil rights matter involving a New Jersey high school student who blew the whistle on a teacher who was proselytizing in class, a violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state.   As reported widely in the press, including the February 20 New York Times, the firm is representing high school junior Matthew LaClair and his family in their effort to get the Kearny School District to implement a policy to ensure that the teacher’s classroom religious advocacy is stopped and would not be repeated, and that his erroneous statements regarding evolution and the big bang theory be corrected.   Willkie partner Richard Mancino, who is handling the matter, was quoted in the New York Times, stating that he did not understand why school officials would not “standup for this student, who had the guts to raise this constitutional issue.”  Instead, they appear “to have adopted a shoot-the-messenger-policy.” 

Matthew brought the matter to the attention of the School Board in September 2006 and after months of inaction was forced to go public in November 2006.  Since then he has been subjected to harassment and threats.  On February 13, the family filed a torts claim notice, which is a necessary first step in bringing a lawsuit against the School Board.

At a recent press conference, Mr. Mancino stated, “it is clear to us that the Board and the Kearny High School administration remain disturbingly unconcerned by serious violations of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution and, instead, view Matthew as the problem.  Because the school has failed to stand up for Matthew and support his stance against the imposition of a particular religious viewpoint in the classroom, Matthew continues to endure taunts and profanity by other students, as well as threats to his physical safety that required intervention by the police.  Worse yet is the school’s failure to protect Matthew from continued harassment and retaliation.”    The ACLU underscored that the school “violated the spirit and the letter of freedom of religion and the First Amendment.” 


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