ACLU-NJ Heads Back to Court over Municipal Prayer

November 9, 2010
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Point Pleasant Beach replaces Lord's Prayer with Sectarian Prayer Policy

Newark — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced today that it has once again filed suit against Point Pleasant Beach to challenge government-led prayers at municipal council meetings. The ACLU-NJ recently dismissed a previous lawsuit after the borough abandoned its practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer at every council meeting.

Point Pleasant Beach's new policy allows council members, on a rotating basis, to offer sectarian prayers - including the Lord's Prayer - at the start of council meetings. The ACLU-NJ represents borough resident Sharon Cadalzo in a challenge to this unconstitutional entanglement between the government and religion.

"The borough has replaced one unconstitutional policy with another." said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director. "New Jersey law is clear that government invocations may not include sectarian prayers."

Cadalzo regularly attends council meetings and began questioning the borough's explicit preference for Christianity more than two years ago.

"I'm disappointed in the new policy," said Cadalzo. "It shows disrespect for the diversity of our community and disrespect for the First Amendment."

The ACLU handles a variety of cases and issues concerning religious freedom. The First Amendment protects the right to practice religion as we wish, a principle that depends on the government demonstrating neutrality towards religion, and not preferring religion over non-religion, thus allowing people to practice their beliefs free from discrimination by government.

"This policy ignores the fact that the borough serves people of many different faiths and undermines the fundamental American value of religious freedom by giving council members a platform to promote their personal religious beliefs," said ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Frank L. Corrado, of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gibson P.C. in Wildwood, New Jersey.

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, is captioned Cadalzo v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, et al., docket number OCN-L-4087-10, and will be heard before Ocean County Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso on December 3, 2010, at 10 a.m.

More information about the ACLU's work to defend religious freedom can be found at

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ACLU-NJ Challenges Recitation of Lord's Prayer at Council's Meetings

September 20, 2010
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Newark — Acting on behalf of a borough resident, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced today that it has filed suit against Point Pleasant Beach to challenge the borough's longstanding practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer at its municipal council meetings. The ACLU-NJ has also asked the court to issue an injunction halting the practice while the suit is ongoing.

"The Constitution forbids a government entity from showing preference to a particular religion," said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director. "The prayer recited at Point Pleasant Beach council meetings is one of the most extreme examples we have seen of an explicit preference for Christianity."

After examining public records, the ACLU-NJ learned that the Borough has been reciting the Lord's Prayer - one of the most well-known Christian prayers - at its council meetings for at least six years.

Point Pleasant Beach resident Sharon Cadalzo, who regularly attends council meetings, expressed her concerns about the recitation of the Lord's Prayer to both the current and former mayor. After years of distress over the practice, Cadalzo sought the ACLU-NJ's help to file a complaint against the practice.

"People of all faiths and beliefs should feel welcome at public meetings," said Cadalzo. "It's a matter of fairness. No member of the community should feel that their beliefs exclude them from public life."

"Beginning a municipal council meeting with a prayer rooted in just one religious tradition not only violates the state constitution, but also divides the community," said ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Frank L. Corrado, of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gibson P.C. in Wildwood, New Jersey.

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, is captioned Cadalzo v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, et al., docket number L-3409-10, and is before Ocean County Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso.

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ACLU-NJ Celebrates 50 Years on the Front Lines of Freedom

June 16, 2010
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Newark, N.J. - For five decades, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has been a gale force in the most critical social debates of our time and a vigilant guardian of civil rights for all.

In June, the ACLU-NJ will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding and celebrate its standing as one of the largest and most active affiliates in the nation. Created to counter the growing pressures on civil liberties in the state, the affiliate's first official meeting took place on the night of June 16, 1960. Since its start, the affiliate, which has continued to keep its headquarters in Newark, has seen its membership multiply nearly 10-fold, from 1,600 people to more than 15,000.

"We believe that the liberties in the Bill of Rights belong to every American, to all the people in New Jersey regardless of their political beliefs, race, religion or national origin," ACLU-NJ founder and longtime President Emil Oxfeld said in the original press release announcing the formation of the state's affiliate. "We believe these freedoms must be exercised if democracy in our state is to grow and thrive."

Oxfeld went on to list issues that desperately needed attention at the time - due process, racial discrimination, the separation of church and state, and freedom from censorship - all principles the ACLU still defends daily.

"While some of the issues raised in our cases over the years seem archaic by today's standards, many haven't changed at all," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs, who has led the affiliate since 1999, including during the biggest membership spike in its history. "The law has advanced remarkably in areas like women's rights, lesbian and gay rights, and safeguarding personal privacy, but with issues like free speech, police practices and religious freedom, no fight ever stays won."

"The ACLU of New Jersey has been a leader in the crucial civil liberties battles of our time," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the national ACLU. "While each new era brings a wave of assaults on freedom, the ACLU of New Jersey responds swiftly and decisively, protecting the rights of all Garden State residents. It has proven its value on the American political landscape."

Since opening its doors and springing into action - its first official undertaking was commending the Clifton Library's stance against banning books like Lady Chatterley's Lover - the ACLU-NJ has doggedly worked for justice and equality in New Jersey.

In its first decade the ACLU-NJ took strong action following the 1967 Newark Rebellion. Staffers took to the streets in the aftermath, painstakingly cataloguing police abuses to the ACLU-NJ would refer to in its demands for reform. The New Jersey affiliate also emerged even more progressive than the national ACLU, becoming one of the first state affiliates to take a stand against the Vietnam War.

Since those early years, the ACLU-NJ has grown into one of the country's largest and most active state affiliates, with a record of milestones that has earned it a role on the national stage. Among its accomplishments, the ACLU-NJ:

  • Defended the rights of women in schools, from a tennis star (represented by Ruth Bader Ginsburg) who won the right to play on the high school boys' tennis team, to the Princeton student who turned its Ivy League all-male eating clubs co-ed.
  • Blocked a bill requiring a "one-minute period of silence" for prayer in public schools in 1983.
  • Defended 12 motorists who had been racially profiled on the New Jersey Turnpike in the late 1990s.
  • Propelled New Jersey to become the first state in the nation to grant equal standing to gay and lesbian couples jointly adopting in 1997.
  • Successfully challenged the state's ban on late-term abortion in 1998 and a law requiring parents to sign off on a minor's abortion in 2000.
  • Challenged secret detentions and organized locally, fending off attempts to chip away at individual rights following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
  • Defeated local laws written to exclude immigrants from housing, won humane working conditions for immigrants, and helped enforce the rights of young immigrants to attend public school.
  • Established stronger First Amendment protections in schools and malls, as well as developments run by homeowners associations.

The ACLU-NJ is celebrating the clients, attorneys, leaders and volunteers - many involved in the cases highlighted above - who have built its legacy, from its founders to its future. The stories of these 50 Faces of Liberty can be found at the ACLU-NJ website,

"Society has changed dramatically since our founding, but we've never lost the fire that fuels the ACLU's advocacy," Jacobs added. "We can't always predict what challenges lie ahead for liberty in a changing world, but whatever they are, the ACLU stands ready to defend the fundamental rights of ordinary Americans."

The year-long commemoration will culminate November 4 at the NJ Freedom Fest: A night of laughter and liberties, hosted by comedian Jimmy Tingle and featuring faces from the ACLU past and present, to be held at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick.

Pentecostal Minister Can Now Preach in Prison

November 29, 2009
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Pentecostal Minister Can Preach In Prison Following ACLU Lawsuit

TRENTON — Prompted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, state prison officials in New Jersey have agreed to restore the right of a devout Christian prisoner to preach at weekly worship services and teach Bible study classes.

Under the terms of a settlement agreement, Howard Thompson, Jr., an ordained Pentecostal minister, will once again be allowed to preach in prison, a practice banned two years ago without any warning or justification.

"The decision by prison officials in New Jersey to allow Mr. Thompson to resume practicing his faith is a welcome acknowledgement that religious freedom in this country extends to all," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The ban on prisoner preaching was clearly at odds with the law and the American value of religious liberty, and this decision was long overdue."

Thompson had preached at weekly worship services at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) for more than a decade when, in 2007, prison officials issued a blanket ban on such preaching by inmates, even when done under the direct supervision of prison staff. In response, the ACLU and the ACLU of New Jersey filed a lawsuit on Thompson's behalf last December, arguing that the ban unconstitutionally infringed upon Thompson's right to freely practice his religion. The lawsuit named NJSP Administrator Michelle R. Ricci and New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner George W. Hayman as defendants.

Since entering NJSP in 1986, Thompson has been an active member of the prison's Christian community, preaching at Sunday services, teaching Bible study classes and founding the choir. His preaching never caused any security problems. Indeed, the prison's chaplaincy staff had actively supported and encouraged Thompson, believing that he was a positive influence on his fellow inmates.

"The ban prevented me from responding to my religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, something I had done honestly, effectively and without any incident for years," said Thompson. "All I have ever wanted was to have my religious rights restored so that I could continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."

Ordained in October 2000 during a service at NJSP overseen by the prison's chaplain, Thompson sincerely believes it is his religious calling and obligation to preach his Pentecostal faith and has always been willing to do so under the full supervision of NJSP staff.

"The right to freely express religious viewpoints without the fear of repercussions is one of Americans' most fundamental constitutional rights," said Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "It is gratifying to see prison officials in our state take that constitutional obligation seriously."

The legal team for Thompson included Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Barocas and Nadia Seeratan of the ACLU of New Jersey.

A copy of the settlement agreement is available online at:

A copy of the ACLU's complaint on behalf of Thompson is available online at:

Additional information about the ACLU of New Jersey is available online at:

The lawsuit was just the latest in a long line of ACLU cases defending the fundamental right to religious exercise, a more expansive list of which is available online at:

ACLU Protects Prisoner's Religious Liberty

December 9, 2008
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State Prison Officials Prevent Ordained Pentecostal Minister from Preaching

TRENTON, NJ - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Jersey today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a New Jersey prisoner, an ordained Pentecostal minister, who is asking the state to respect his religious freedom by restoring his right to preach.

Howard Thompson Jr. had preached at weekly worship services at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) for more than a decade when prison officials last year issued, without any reason, a blanket ban on all preaching by inmates, even when done under the direct supervision of prison staff.

"Ours is a country where people are free to express their religious viewpoints without having to fear repercussions," said Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "The New Jersey State Prison may not deny its prisoners their most basic constitutional rights."

Since he entered NJSP in 1986, Thompson has been an active member of the prison's Christian community, participating in and preaching at Sunday services and other religious events, teaching Bible study classes and founding the choir. His preaching has never caused any security incidents, and the prison's chaplaincy staff has actively supported Thompson and encouraged him to spread his deeply held message of faith.

But in June 2007, prison officials banned all prisoners from engaging in preaching of any kind, without any warning or justification -- which they still have not given.

"I have a religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, and I've done so honestly, effectively and without incident for years," Thompson said. "All I want is to have my religious liberty restored and to be able to continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."

According to the lawsuit, which names NJSP Administrator Michelle R. Ricci and New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner George W. Hayman as defendants, Thompson first preached a service at NJSP over a decade ago, when he relieved the former Protestant chaplain, who had been unable to lead a scheduled service due to illness.

During the next decade, before he was ordained as a Pentecostal minister, Thompson periodically preached at Sunday services, taught Bible study classes and participated in and led the prison choir he founded. During these years, Thompson received his call to ordained ministry and to preaching and leading others in worship, study, and prayer.

"Prisoners do not forfeit their fundamental right to religious liberty at the prison gate," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The prison's absolute ban on inmate preaching clearly violates the law and Mr. Thompson's right to practice his faith."

Thompson, ordained in October 2000 during a service at NJSP overseen by the prison's chaplain, sincerely believes it is his religious calling and obligation to preach his Pentecostal faith and is willing to do so under the full supervision of NJSP staff.

This lawsuit is the latest in a long line of ACLU cases defending the fundamental right to religious exercise, a complete list of which is available online.

In 2007, the ACLU of Rhode Island prevailed in a lawsuit challenging a similar restriction on prisoner preaching, successfully overturning a statewide ban and restoring the plaintiff prisoner's right to preach during weekly Christian services.

Read Howard Thompson's complaint and preliminary injunction brief online.

Learn about the ACLU Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief and the ACLU-NJ online.

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:

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.

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