Willkie helps win important settlement in high-profile civil rights matter involving a student who blew the whistle on a teacher who was proselytizing in class.

Willkie has helped win an important settlement in a high-profile pro bono 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.   Willkie has been representing pro bono 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. 

On May 8, a settlement agreement was signed in which the School Board agreed to hire the New Jersey Anti-Defamation League to conduct training of both its teachers and its students on the doctrine of separation of church and state and on the scientific principles of evolution and the Big Bang theory.   The Board also agreed to create a new policy which provides a means for students to address complaints, and has agreed to conduct an independent investigation into Matthew LaClair’s allegations of harassment and retaliation in school.  The lawyer for the School Board stated in the May 10 New York Times that “the settlement created remedies that go further than any court has gone.”

Upon entering the settlement, the Board read the following statement:   “The Board wishes to publicly express their appreciation to Matthew LaClair for his efforts in bringing to the School Board’s attention a serious situation in the Kearny schools regarding the Constitutional mandate of separation of church and state. Because of Matthew’s exemplary actions in standing up for his Constitutional rights and the integrity of education, often at the cost of his own popularity in the community and the school, the Board was able to take action to correct this situation and improve the educational environment for all students. The Board commends Matthew LaClair for his courage and integrity in taking the responsibilities of citizenship seriously and acting accordingly.  We thank him for calling attention to this important issue.  The Board reaffirms our commitment to the core academic curriculum standards relating to the Big Bang and evolutionary theory.”

The matter was handled by partner Richard Mancino and associates Gustavo Gonzalez and Samuel Leaf.



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