As I looked out at the 900 students at an assembly at Kearny High School in New Jersey, I told them I had good news and bad news.
"The good news is that if yon don't want to hear about the separation of church and state, this event will be over in 50 minutes," I said. "The bad news is that I recently attended my 40th high school reunion in nearby Pennsylvania, and in 40 years all of you will look like me."
Go for the easy laugh first is my motto. The average American high school isn't likely to have a speaker with a "controversial" viewpoint speak to their entire student body (a second group of 900 came in the next hour at Kearny).
So how did I get there? My appearance was part of an unusual legal settlement. Last year, an 11th-grade student named Matthew LaClair was disturbed that his advanced placement history teacher was devoting class time to telling students to accept Christ or go to hell and observing that Noah had dinosaurs with him on the ark.
Believing this was wildly inappropriate and unconstitutional, LaClair taped the teacher and played it for the principal. Officials at the school responded quickly: They approved a new policy prohibiting students from taping their teachers!
Frustrated, Matthew went to the New Jersey Civil Liberties Union. They threatened a lawsuit, and the matter went into negotiation. The case never made it to trial, in part because Matthew's First Amendment claim was so clear. A settlement was reached that involved an apology to Matthew and recognition that what he did was helpful.
In addition, the school system agreed to have an in-service training on both the Constitution and evolution for the faculty and to have two speakers discuss these topics at student assemblies.
My friend Dr. Kenneth Miller of Brown University's Biology Department went to the school in October for an evolution discussion and, with a bit more foot-dragging, the administration had me up in early December to handle church and state.
From the beginning, I told both Matthew and the administration that l would play this very straight: a little history of the religion clauses of the First Amendment and a statement of what the Supreme Court has said about religion in public school and students' and parental rights to avoid government promotion of faith there.
That's what I did. After the lecture, many students had questions, and I answered them until time ran out. After the attendees left, a teacher came tip to me at the podium and...