The Bay Area Skeptic’s SkepTalk of 8 August 2012 attracted a packed house and delivered a riveting program that included a one-hour documentary movie followed by the Skype presence of the movie’s principal character, Matthew LaClair.
The story begins when Matt LaClair, a student at a suburban New Jersey public high school, hears his history teacher insert Christian proselytizing into his lessons. LaClair believed the teacher was doing this in the other classes he taught and probably had been for years. LaClair also believed that if he voiced an objection [on the basis of respecting the separation of church and state] the teacher would still continue proselytizing in other classes. Matt decided to bring a tape recorder to class and recorded what the teacher had to say about Jesus.
[Teacher on tape] “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.”
LaClair and his parents released the tape to the media but only after being repeatedly stone-walled by school administrators including the school board. The incident quickly became a national media event and spokespeople stepped forward on both sides of the issue.
The Skype session with Matt LaClair after the movie was enlightening, entertaining, and thought-provoking. One of his comments stunned me; the film-maker created the movie to be unbiased in its content. The reason that seemed incredible was that the many people supporting religious proselytizing in public schools made such fools of themselves in the movie that our SkepTalk audience frequently broke into laughter at their ridiculous statements. It was only in retrospect that I came to suspect that the pro-proselytizing side likely felt the same way about the people in the movie who supported Matt LaClair. Moments like that underscore the width and depth of a disturbing gulf in our society.
In answering our many questions, Matt impressed us with his basic concern: freedom. There can be no freedom of religion when government institutions align with religious views. For example, a scene in the movie showed Matt objecting to a planned trip to the Creation Museum by the Alpha-Omega high school club. When asked after the movie whether that trip ever took place, Matt responded that yes it did and he was pleased they exercised their freedom in going. His initial concern was whether school funds or school time would be used in any way for the trip but they were not; the club raised the money on their own. Matt did, however, disparage the trip as an homage to ignorance.