Monday, December 18, 2006

Evangelism in the classroom

Here's a good example of why restrictions on religious speech in the classroom are necessary.

Before David Paszkiewicz got to teach his accelerated 11th-grade history class about the United States Constitution this fall, he was accused of violating it.

Shortly after school began in September, the teacher told his sixth-period students at Kearny High School that evolution and the Big Bang were not scientific, that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark, and that only Christians had a place in heaven, according to audio recordings made by a student whose family is now considering a lawsuit claiming Mr. Paszkiewicz broke the church-state boundary.

“If you reject his gift of salvation, then you know where you belong,” Mr. Paszkiewicz was recorded saying of Jesus. “He did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he’s saying, ‘Please, accept me, believe.’ If you reject that, you belong in hell.”

He also apparently told a Muslim girl that she was going to hell, although the story is unclear on that detail.

I'm not sure whether to be cheered by this:

Even some legal organizations that often champion the expression of religious beliefs are hesitant to support Mr. Paszkiewicz.

“It’s proselytizing, and the courts have been pretty clear you can’t do that,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a group that provides legal services in religious freedom cases. “You can’t step across the line and proselytize, and that’s what he’s done here.”

Or discouraged by this:

In this tale of the teacher who preached in class and the pupil he offended, students and the larger community have mostly lined up with Mr. Paszkiewicz, not with Matthew, who has received a death threat handled by the police, as well as critical comments from classmates.

Greice Coelho, who took Mr. Paszkiewicz’s class and is a member of his youth group, said in a letter to The Observer, the local weekly newspaper, that Matthew was “ignoring the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gives every citizen the freedom of religion.” Some anonymous posters on the town’s electronic bulletin board, Kearnyontheweb.com, called for Matthew’s suspension.

On the sidewalks outside the high school, which has 1,750 students, many agreed with 15-year-old Kyle Durkin, who said, “I’m on the teacher’s side all the way.”

Paszkiewicz is by all accounts a good teacher. But using his official capacity to proselytize his students in a history class is out of bounds. He has a First Amendment right to speak, which is why he isn't going to jail; that does not make such speech appropriate, however, nor protect him from disciplinary action by his employer.

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