Student's Case Ensures Religious Freedom

June 9, 2008
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NEWARK - In the midst of the 2008 graduation season, the ACLU-NJ has successfully settled a lawsuit on behalf of Bilal Shareef, a Muslim honor student who did not attend his 2006 West Side High School graduation because it was held in the sanctuary of a Baptist church.

"I was forced to choose between honoring my education and my faith, and no one should be put in that position," said Shareef. "I'm proud that I stood up for my beliefs, and I'm proud that my experience will keep other students from having to face the choices I did."

In 2005 and 2006, West Side High School held graduation in the sanctuary of a Baptist Church. Then-Principal Fernard Williams also told students they would receive two extra tickets to graduation if they attended a separate religious baccalaureate ceremony at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic church.

Shareef, whose religion forbids him from entering buildings with religious iconography, including pictures of Allah or an image of the cross, did not attend the ceremonies.

"There is a reason the Constitution forbids preference of one religion over the other: Government, especially school officials, should not be in the position of making certain people feel favored, while making others feel like outsiders," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas, who represented the Shareefs. "It is the right of parents, not school officials, to attempt to convey religious beliefs to our children."

As part of the settlement, Newark Public Schools has apologized to Bilal Shareef, his father Ahmad Shareef, and other students and members of the Newark community who felt forced to forego or uncomfortable attending the 2005 or 2006 graduations. Newark Public Schools also agreed to institute significant policy changes. It agreed not to sponsor or promote religious events, not to withhold or provide benefits to students based on whether they attend particular religious events, not to hold student events in places of worship and not to hold student events in other religious buildings unless religious images are covered.

The lawsuit on behalf of the Shareefs, filed in March 2007, claimed that Newark Public Schools had violated the New Jersey Constitution by showing a preference for one religion over others, and by compelling people to attend a place of worship contrary to their faith.

The ACLU-NJ initially contacted the Newark Public Schools in 2005 after receiving complaints about West Side High School's graduation being held at New Hope Baptist Church. Newark Public Schools wrote a letter to the ACLU-NJ assuring that the school's graduation would not be held in a religious location again and that the school district would conceal or remove religious images. The ACLU-NJ therefore agreed not to sue. However, in 2006, the ceremony was again in the same church and, after being contacted by the Shareefs, the ACLU-NJ took action.

ACLU Applauds Governor Corzine's Signing of Pharmacy Bill

November 2, 2007
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TRENTON, N.J. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today applauded Governor Jon Corzine's decision to sign a bill into law that will help ensure women's ability to access birth control at the pharmacy. The bill, sponsored by Senator Fred Madden and Assemblywoman Linda Stender, makes New Jersey one of a handful of states to protect patient's ability to access prescriptions at the pharmacy.

"Today's law strikes an important balance between protecting patient's health and religious freedom," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU-NJ.

The pharmacy access law requires pharmacies to fill prescriptions for in-stock drugs or devices without undue delay, despite the sincerely held moral, philosophical or religious beliefs of an individual pharmacist. Pharmacies employing pharmacists who object to filling prescriptions can accommodate the objection so long as the pharmacy ensures that customers receive their prescriptions, including birth control, at the pharmacy without undue delay.

"Access to safe and effective contraception is a central component of basic health care for women," said Jacobs. "This law will go a long way toward ending sex discrimination at the pharmacy."

The ACLU's long-held advocacy for both reproductive rights and religious liberty uniquely positions the organization to address this issue. In April, the ACLU released a report, "Religious Refusals and Reproductive Rights: Accessing Birth Control at the Pharmacy," which examines legal questions raised when a pharmacist or pharmacy refuses to provide contraception based on a religious objection.

The report is available online at: http://tinyurl.com/2pms2q

School Violates Religious Freedom of Student

March 6, 2007
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NEWARK, N.J. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed a lawsuit today against the Newark Public Schools for violating a Muslim student's religious freedom by holding West Side High School's 2006 graduation ceremony in the sanctuary of a Baptist church.

Bilal Shareef, a 2006 graduating senior and honor student who is Muslim, was unable to attend his graduation because the school's decision to hold graduation in a church forced him to choose between missing graduation or violating his religious proscription against entering buildings with religious iconography, such as pictures of God or the cross.

"I worked hard throughout high school to reach the point of graduation, and the school -- by holding graduation in the sanctuary of a church -- denied me the chance to be there with my friends and family for what should have been a happy, once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Shareef.

Prior to 2004, West Side High School held its graduations in secular locations. However, in 2005, the school scheduled graduation in New Hope Baptist Church. At that time, the ACLU-NJ received a complaint from a Muslim parent and contacted the attorney for Newark Public Schools. Upon receiving a letter from the school attorney providing assurances that graduation would not be held in a religious location again, the ACLU-NJ agreed not to sue. The school district attorney, in his letter, stated that "based [on] the legitimate concerns of our student and parent, I will advise District administration to refrain from scheduling events in church locations and make every effort to work with the church to remove or conceal religious symbols for the duration of the ceremony."

However, in 2006, despite this written promise, West Side High School again scheduled its graduation ceremony in New Hope Baptist Church. Moreover, then-Principal Fernard Williams informed students that if they attended a separate religious baccalaureate ceremony at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (a Catholic church), they would receive two additional tickets for family or friends to attend the graduation ceremony.

"Although he tried not to show it, I knew Bilal took it hard," said Ahmad Shareef, Bilal's father. "I am an involved parent and would have been proud to see Bilal walk up to receive his diploma, but I am even more proud that he stood up for our beliefs. Insha'Allah [God-willing], this lawsuit will ensure that students from all religious backgrounds will have their rights and religious beliefs respected."

The lawsuit alleges that the school's actions of awarding benefits to students for attending the Catholic religious ceremony and holding the graduation ceremony in a Baptist church violated the New Jersey Constitution's prohibitions against: showing a preference for certain religious sects over others, compelling people to "attend any place of worship contrary to his faith and judgment" and segregating or discriminating against students "in the public schools, because of [their] religious principles."

"This case is a living example of why the New Jersey Constitution makes it clear that government should neither favor nor discriminate against religious practice," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas, who represents the Shareefs. "Schools should not sponsor activities that exclude some students from participation on the basis of religious belief."

The ACLU-NJ has a long track record of supporting the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and engage in religious practices free from government interference, including recently defending a second-grade student's right to sing a Christian religious song at an after-school talent show, ensuring that jurors who wear religious garb are not removed from jury pools and supporting a student whose public school teacher told the class that they belonged in hell if they did not believe that Jesus died for their sins.

The latest case is captioned Bilal Shareef and Ahmad Shareef v. Newark Public Schools, et al. The case was filed in New Jersey Superior Court in Essex County.

ACLU Supports Student Challenge to Preaching Teacher

February 18, 2007
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 Matthew LaClair

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and People For theAmerican Way Foundation stood in support of attorneys with Willkie Farr& Gallagher of New York and Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti ofMorristown, N.J., at a news conference today as they announced thefiling of legal papers on behalf of the parents of a Kearny public highschool student whose history teacher preached his religious beliefs inclass.

The teacher, David Paszkiewicz, made statements in his 11th grade classthat included telling students that those who did not believe that Jesusdied for their sins belonged in hell, that evolution was less fact-basedthan the Bible, that there were dinosaurs on Noah's Ark, that the BigBang is unscientific, and that the Bible has been proven to be literallytrue by the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies.

Rather than constructively addressing the teacher's violation of law andduty, the school found ways to penalize the student for exposing theteacher's inappropriate conduct and took actions that encouragedharassment of the student by his peers.

"I believe it is important to stand up for our constitutional rights andto make sure that these violations of the First Amendment, whichapparently have been going on for years, are stopped once and for all,"said 16-year-old Kearny High School student Matthew LaClair, a junior,who objected to his history teacher's proselytizing in class. "I alsobelieve that students should be made aware of their rights and know thatthey can do something to see they are respected."

Starting in September 2006, Matthew raised objections with the school'sadministration regarding his history teacher's repeated proselytizing inclass. He observed that his teacher not only presented his own personalreligious views and beliefs, but also denigrated differing viewpoints.The teacher went as far as to imply to Matthew personally and in openclass that Matthew and his parents were not sincere in their religiousbeliefs.

During a meeting with Matthew, the school principal and the departmenthead, the teacher denied making many of these statements or suggestedthat in his view they were part of a legitimate in-class discussion.However, knowing he might not be believed, Matthew had recorded theteacher's statements during class and provided those recordings to theprincipal. After that, school officials ended the meeting and declinedto further discuss with Matthew or his parents what actions would betaken to correct the problem. After numerous attempts to speak with theschool were rebuffed, and as Matthew was being subjected to harassmentby other students which the school failed to curb, his family soughtlegal help.

The ACLU-NJ and the People for the American Way Foundation havesteadfastly supported Matthew since the incident came to light and haveexpressed their astonishment and disappointment about the way the schooldistrict has chosen to handle the matter.

"This incident created a true teaching moment, but the school decided toteach the wrong lesson," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs."Instead of recognizing and reinforcing the student for his courage andunderstanding that it is not the job of school officials to usurpparents' role in teaching religious belief, at every turn, the schoolhas taken action to protect itself and the teacher who violated one ofour most fundamental American principles, freedom of religion."

Attorneys from Willkie Farr & Gallagher and Riker, Danzig, Scherer,Hyland & Perretti, who are representing the LaClair family, sought toresolve the matter amicably. The LaClair family and their attorneys, forexample, have proposed to the Kearny High School administration andschool board that the school conduct an assembly or panel presentationto specifically discuss and explain to students the role of religion inpublic schools and to correct the erroneous scientific statementsespoused by the history teacher.

School officials rejected this proposal and instead chose to adoptpolicies and engage in practices that subjected Matthew to furtherhostility and harassment in school. Most notably, the school prohibitedthe recording of classes without obtaining permission from teachers and notifying students, ensuring that if the teacher or another teacher engaged in a serious constitutional violation in the future, it would not be easily proven by students. The school also switched all the students in the two level-one 11th grade history classes mid-year, provoking hostility toward Matthew for having prompted this mid-yearchange in history teachers.

"Because the school has failed to stand up for Matthew and support hisstance against the imposition of a particular religious viewpoint in theclassroom, he has endured taunts and profanity by other students, aswell as threats to his physical safety that required intervention by thepolice," said Richard Mancino, partner with Willkie Farr & Gallagher.Worse yet, Mancino added, is the school's failure to protect Matthewfrom continued harassment and retaliation by students and employees atKearny High School.

The attorneys, therefore, determined it was necessary for the LaClairsto file a tort claims notice, which was filed on February 13, 2007. Thefiling protects the LaClairs' right to institute certain types oflawsuits against the Kearny school district under New Jersey law.

"This episode was a test for Kearny school officials, one which they did not pass," said Andrew Stengel, Director of the Northeast Regional Office of People For the American Way Foundation. "For failing to uphold religious freedom and tolerance, and for failing to support a student who took a principled stand, we give the school board an F."

All who support Matthew note that the teacher, who is also a Baptist minister, is entitled to his personal religious views and opinions, but that his advocacy of a particular religious faith as a school official in a public school classroom is improper and unlawful.

"In public schools, it is essential to religious liberty that all religious viewpoints are given the absolute protection the Constitution guarantees," said the Reverend Bruce Davidson, Director of the Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry in New Jersey. "As a person of faith, I share with the LaClair family the view that everyone's liberty is best protected when government stays neutral in religious matters."

"As a parent, I am disturbed that Kearny High School fails to protect my son from harassment and harm," said Paul LaClair, Matthew's father. "I am equally concerned as someone who values my son's education that the school lost an opportunity to offer meaningful instruction about the civic values that make our country great."

ACLU-NJ Defends Religious Expression

December 11, 2006
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NEWARK, N.J. - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today praised a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Freda L. Wolfson protecting the religious expression rights of students. The court held that a Frenchtown Elementary School student had the right to sing the song "Awesome God" at a school talent show. The ACLU-NJ submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the student.

"We're pleased that today's decision helps ensure that a student's constitutional right to freely express her religious views is protected," said volunteer attorney Jennifer Klear of Drinker, Biddle & Reath who took the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. "The court upheld an important distinction between religious expression that is initiated or expressed by school officials and speech that is initiated by individual students. Schools cannot censor student-initiated speech at after- school talent shows and other public forums."

The Frenchtown Elementary School student wanted to sing the song "Awesome God" in a voluntary, after-school talent show. School officials refused to allow her to sing the song, saying it would give the impression that the school favored religion.

In its brief, the ACLU-NJ argued that no reasonable observer would have believed that the school endorsed the religious message behind the student's song, and that the school therefore had no right to deny

her choice of song. The talent show was open for anyone from kindergarten through 8th grade who wished to play a solo instrument, dance, perform a skit or sing to karaoke. Students were permitted to select their own songs or skits.

Consistent with ACLU-NJ arguments, the court held that because the school allowed students to choose their own songs, they could not reject the student's choice of song because of its religious content.

"The ACLU has a long-standing dedication to defending religious freedom," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "We are proud to help secure this child's right to sing a religious song at the talent show."

The ACLU-NJ has participated in other cases involving the right of individual religious expression, including recently helping to ensure that jurors are not removed from jury pools for wearing religious clothing and that prisoners are able to obtain religious literature.

ACLU-NJ Supports Student's Right to Religious Expression

June 5, 2006
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NEWARK, N.J. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a case seeking to uphold an elementary school student's right to religious expression.

The Frenchtown Elementary School student, whose initials are O.T., wanted to sing the song "Awesome God" in a voluntary, after-school talent show. School officials refused to allow the student to sing her song, saying it would give the impression that the school favored religion.

"There is a distinction between religious expression initiated or endorsed by school personnel, and speech initiated by individual students," said ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Jennifer Klear of Drinker, Biddle & Reath in New York City. "The Constitution protects a student's individual right to express herself, including religious expression."

In its brief, the ACLU-NJ argued that no reasonable observer would have believed that the school endorsed the religious message behind the student's song, and that the school therefore had no right to deny her choice of song.

The talent show was open for anyone from kindergarten through 8th grades who wished to play a solo instrument, dance, perform a skit or sing to karaoke. Students were permitted to select their own songs or skits.

"We are dedicated to protecting the right of individual religious expression," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "O.T. has our full support in defense of her right to sing a religious song in the talent show."

The ACLU-NJ has participated in other cases involving the right of individual religious expression, including recently helping to ensure that jurors are not removed from jury pools for wearing religious clothing and that prisoners are able to obtain religious literature.

The case is captioned O.T., et al. v. Frenchtown Elementary School, et al. and was filed in federal court in Trenton, N.J.

ACLU-NJ Protects Inmate's Right to Receive Religious Items in Prison

January 9, 2006
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Newark, NJ - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has settled with the New Jersey Department of Corrections on behalf of Patrick Pantusco, an inmate who was denied religious books and other items while in prison. In the settlement, the State agreed to permit Mr. Pantusco access to all requested items and paid damages.

"We all have a right to exercise our religion, even people in prison," said Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ Legal Director. "The State does not have the right to pick and choose which religions should be practiced and which should not."

Mr. Pantusco, an inmate in East Jersey State Prison who practices Wicca, a recognized religion, filed suit in federal court in Newark after prison officials denied him his right to obtain Wiccan books and religious items. Persons of other religions were permitted to obtain similar books and items specific to their religious practice. The prison's denial of Mr. Pantusco's requests was based on the fact that the prison refused to recognize Wicca as a legitimate religion. The ACLU-NJ took over the case for Mr. Pantusco in June 2003.

"All Mr Pantusco wanted was to have the same rights as the Muslim and Christian inmates," said Steven Latimer of the Hackensack firm Loughin & Latimer, who served as the ACLU-NJ's cooperating attorney representing Mr. Pantusco. "He asked for no special privileges."

Among the claims against the State defendants was that they violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects religious rights of inmates by requiring that government entities demonstrate a compelling need in order to deny inmates their ability to religious exercise. The State moved to dismiss the RLUIPA claim, asserting that Congress did not have the authority to pass such a law. The judge denied the motion. In May of 2005, the United States Supreme Court in a similar case upheld the constitutionality of RLUIPA.

The lawsuit recently settled by the ACLU-NJ was captioned Pantusco v. Moore, et al.

The ACLU-NJ is currently also involved in a religious freedom case involving a student. The ACLU-NJ submitted a motion to appear as a friend-of-the-court on behalf of Olivia Turton, who was denied the right to sing the song "Awesome God" at an after-school talent show in which the choice of song or skit performed was left up to each student.

ACLU-NJ Defends Property Owner Against Government Seizure of Land

October 18, 2005
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Newark, NJ -- The ACLU-NJ announced today that it is representing tavern owner Cheng "Terry" Tan who is fighting the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency's attempt to take his restaurant by eminent domain. Jersey City officials want to take Mr. Tan's land to give it to a parochial school, St. Peter's Prep, for its football field.

"I've been a business owner here for over 18 years," said Mr. Tan, the owner of The Golden Cicada on Grand Street. "I've worked hard and become part of the community. Now, the government is taking my property from me for no other purpose than to provide land for a private school's football field that the general public has no right to enjoy the use of."

Eminent domain is a legal doctrine that allows the state to appropriate private property for its own use without the owner's consent. Governments most commonly use the power of eminent domain when the acquisition of real property is necessary for the completion of a public project such as a road, and the owner of the required property is unwilling to negotiate a price for its sale.

The land in question is located in one of Jersey City's many redevelopment zones. The original plan, created in September 1999, called for the zone that included Mr. Tan's land to be used for residential or commercial purposes. However, when the final plan was adopted in October 1999, the area was re-zoned for use as an athletic field or educational facility. According to Mr. Tan, the change occurred because the Redevelopment Agency learned that St. Peter's Prep wanted to acquire the land for a school football field. St. Peter's did buy land in that zone and began to build a field. However, it then determined that it needed additional land so that its field could reach official football field length. After St. Peter's failed to persuade Mr. Tan to sell to them at a price it found acceptable, the Redevelopment Agency stepped in on St. Peter's behalf and initiated eminent domain proceedings.

Mr. Tan and the ACLU-NJ contend that the government is illegally using taxpayer dollars to fund a particular religious institution by re-zoning the area and taking his land in order to aid St. Peter's Prep. Under both the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution and the "No-Preference" Clause of the New Jersey Constitution, a governmental entity such as the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency cannot act with the primary intent to aid a particular religious entity. Likewise, its actions cannot have the primary effect of aiding one religion over another or preferring religion over non-religion.

"Government is not allowed to invoke its power in order to benefit a particular religious organization," said Ronald Chen of Rutgers Law School - Newark's Constitutional Litigation Clinic. "Here, the power of eminent domain is being used to specifically benefit an institution that promotes a particular religious faith." Mr. Chen, along with Michael Kates of Nashel Kates Nussman Rapone & Ellis in Hackensack, are the ACLU-NJ's volunteer cooperating attorneys representing Mr. Tan.

The ACLU-NJ will also argue that the Redevelopment Agency's actions violate the Takings Clause of the United States Constitution, which permits the government to take a property owner's land if it is for a "public use" and the property owner receives just compensation. Last year, the United States Supreme Court held that, while the term "public use" can be read broadly, the Takings Clause does not permit the government to use its power of eminent domain if its purpose is simply to take property from one private party in order to give it to another private party.

In last year's Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, the city in question successfully argued that the increased tax revenue that would result from the taking met the "public use" standard. However, in the present case, the city will actually lose tax revenue if the land is given to St. Peter's Prep since, as a religious institution, it pays no taxes on the land it owns.

The case is captioned Jersey City Redevelopment Agency v. Cheng Tan, et al. The case is scheduled for a hearing on Nov. 4, 2005.

ACLU-NJ Joins Lawsuit to Support Student's Right to Religious Expression

September 20, 2005
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Newark, NJ -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced that it filed a motion yesterday to participate as amicus curiae (friend-of-the-court) in a case seeking to uphold the right of an elementary school student to sing a religious song in a voluntary, after-school talent show.

"There is a distinction between speech by a school and speech by individual students," stated ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Jennifer Klear of Drinker, Biddle & Reath in New York City. "The Constitution protects a student's individual right to express herself, including the right to express herself religiously."

According to the complaint filed by the second-grade student and her parents, an elementary school in Frenchtown prohibited the student, Olivia Turton, from singing the song "Awesome God" in a voluntary, after-school talent show. The talent show was open for anyone from first through eighth grades who wished to play solo instruments, dance, perform a skit or sing to karaoke. Students were permitted to select their own songs or skits so long as they were G-rated.

"Because the school left the choice of songs up to each individual student, no reasonable observer would have believed that the school affirmatively endorsed the content of each student's selection," Klear added. "Therefore, it would not constitute a violation of the separation of church and state. Rather, it's an issue of religious freedom."

"The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has dedicated itself to protecting the right of individual religious expression, including recently helping to ensure that jurors are not removed from jury pools for wearing religious clothing and that prisoners are able to obtain religious literature," noted ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "This student also deserves our full support."

The case is captioned Turton, et al. v. Frenchtown Elementary School, et al. and was filed in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey.

ACLU-NJ Successfully Defends Right of Religious Expression by Jurors

December 21, 2004
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Newark, NJ -- The State Supreme Court ruled today that a prosecutor violated the New Jersey Constitution when he removed two jurors from a jury pool, one for wearing Muslim religious clothing and another for having engaged in missionary activity.

"In this country people have a right to express their religious beliefs without fear of discrimination by the government for so doing," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas, "Excluding people from jury pools based on their religious belief or expression violates the principles of freedom found in the Bill of Rights."

The case concerns the dismissal of two jurors in a criminal case in the New Jersey Superior Court in Essex County. The prosecutor excused the jurors, saying that they were "demonstrative about their religion" and that such persons "tend to favor defendants.."

In its brief, the ACLU-NJ argued that such actions violated the Equal Protection and freedom of religion clauses of the United States and New Jersey Constitutions, as well as the right to trial by an impartial jury. The ACLU-NJ explained that not only should people be free to express themselves about their religion but, in addition, such a basis for jury removal will often lead to discrimination against identifiable religious minorities.

In its opinion, the New Jersey Supreme Court cited to the ACLU-NJ's brief to support its holding that: "Clothing, in those cases, is little more than a proxy for religion." Indeed, the Court noted that certain religions require outward expressions of faith or encourage missionary service more than others and, if the prosecutor's actions were permitted to stand, those religious groups would be discriminated against and, therefore, improperly underrepresented in juries.

The case is captioned State v. Lloyd Fuller. Oral argument took place on December 2, 2003. Ronald Chen, Associate Dean of Rutgers Law School - Newark, argued the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ which appeared as amicus curiae.