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Interview with Student Activist Matt LaClair

At the Freedom From Religion Founation's 2007 conference, we got the chance to sit down and chat with FFRF award recipient Matt LaClair. You can read about Matt's struggle to get religion and preaching out of his school here and here. SSA eMpirical Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth R.A. Liddell conducts this interview.

Matt LaClairYou talked about getting pushback from teachers and students. Was that a constant active pressure every day, or more of a passive resistance?
It was kind of a mix. A lot of friends and other students just stopped talking to me, but other people would come straight up to me and say what an asshole I was. So it was a mix, but it was constant.

Has that died down a bit?
It died down a little bit over the summer. I don't think it's as strong as it was. I think part of that is because now I'm a senior, while last year [when this was all happening] I was just a junior. The studnets who said things to my face have never come back. But some of the ones who just stopped talking have warmed up again.

Do you think Mr. Paszkiewicz was allowed to do this more because he was just a charismatic guy and had everyone on his side, or because everyone felt like they were ok with backing up religion in schools?
I think it was a mix of exactly those two things. A lot of students don't really know what the separation of church and state really is. They would say things like "You know, he has the right to his own beliefs, too." And they're right - he does, but as a public school teacher he doesn't have the right to preach to his class and he certainly doesn't have the right condemn them to hell. It's just not the place of a public schoolteacher. But at the same time, it was a mix. He was really charismatic, people loved him, he seemed like a really great guy. I wanted to get along with him too - that's how great he was. I still wanted to like him, he was so much fun.

Do you think this would have been different if he were voicing beliefs other than Christianity?
Imagine if this guy were Muslim. Imagine if he were telling students that if they didn't believe in Allah, they belong in hell. That man would have been out in a week. He would have been fired immediately, with no questions asked, I'm almost positive. It's really quite amazing when you think about it, how people can say "The majority of people are Christian, so it's ok." I guess people don't really realize that every individual person has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Sure, majority rules, but not in the area of religion in public schools.

One student actually asked me if religion shouldn't be taught in public schools, why should evolution be taught in public schools? The difference is that evolution is science, while religion is based on a kind of faith. People say, "If I believe this strong enough, it's true." Yet creationists haven't been able to come up with one single piece of evidence to disprove the idea of evolution, as opposed to evolution which has had many, many things that have been shown to be true. And that's what makes one a science and one a religion.

By the time you get down to it, if you're going to teach religion in public schools, even if you teach them all, when are we actually going to be learning anything besides religion? Now, if you want to have a class dedicated to that idea, a comparative religion class, then sure. That's a wonderful idea! The problem is, good luck finding somebody who can teach that class without being biased towards one or another. That's almost impossible to find. Everyone has their own personal bias, and I think it would be dangerous to try that in a public school.

You've had speakers at your school this year as part of the agreement with the Board of Education. How have the students been reacting to the speakers?
Most of the students were kind of indifferent. Some students said, "Oh, that sucked," but they say that about every assembly. It's just something you say when you're in high school - it doesn't matter how good it is, you don't really care. There were some people who I heard were really ticked off, because they don't think that evolution should be taught in schools at all. (But Kenneth Miller [the first speaker at the school] is a Roman Catholic!) I was amazed that there were so many people who were upset about it, and I wonder if maybe parents will start to complain about it. But if they do, I'm ready for it.

Two students spoke to me, and they said "Thanks for the assembly." They said how wonderful they thought it was; they think he did a great job, that they really learned a lot. It was weird because these are two people I haven't talked to in a while. One I haven't talked to since my freshman year, and the other stopped talking to me last year. Now, through all of this, not a single student has really thanked me for doing anything about all this. It was really weird, because out of all the people I would have expected to say something about it, it wasn't these two that I hadn't talked to in so long. But they were really nice, and they didn't do it quietly. They were just talking to me in the front hall.

I'm starting to see that some of the students are starting to grow up, I hope that over the next few years, even if they didn't like what I did and even if they like the teacher, they'll see that I didn't do this for personal gain. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. It's still disappointing to see the general attitude, but it's good to see some of them come around.

Do you have any last minute thoughts you'd like to share with us?
I want to say that more and more people have to start doing this sort of thing. I hope that there aren't a lot of school districts that are like this. I'm sure that there are a lot of teachers that say stupid things, but I don't think there are many places where a teacher does something stupid, the principal does something stupid, the Board of Education does about 25 things stupid, the superintendent does about 25 things stupid. I hope there's not a lot of places in the country that have that kind of problem! But I hope that students will start to actually do something when they see something going wrong.

As long as you take action, two things will come out of it.

1. You could get the chance to spread the message again. You can get the chance to meet a whole bunch of people, get awards, you know. And I was fortunate enough to have that happnen.

2. Even if the first doesn't happen, one of the best things that could possibly happen is that you won't have any regrets. You'll say "You know what, I tried to do something. And I did everything In my power." And if you're going to do it, don't do it just a little bit, go all the way. You have to, you're not going to get anywhere. If I handed over the tapes and then said "Now you know," and let it go, nothing would have happened. I think that if you're going to do it, you have to do it all the way. I think that's something that a lot of students have to learn to do.

Our thanks to Matt LaClair and his father Paul LaClair for their time at the FFRF conference, and our best wishes to Matt as he finishes high school and prepares for college!
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