- LEAH WILLINGHAM
Charleston, West Virginia, USA
A parent-student group is suing a West Virginia school district for allowing an evangelical preacher to hold a religious revival assembly during the school day earlier this month, which some students were expected to attend.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in West Virginia on behalf of the families by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says the school system in Cabell County, in the southwestern part of the state, has a history systematic disregard for the religious freedom of his students. and instituting Christian religious practices.
“For years, employees of the school system violated the constitutional rights of students by promoting and advancing the Christian religion, as well as forcing students to participate in Christian religious activities,” the lawsuit states. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nonprofit organization that promotes the separation of church and state.
Huntington High School senior Max Nibert holds signs he planned to use during a student walkout at the school in Huntington, West Virginia. Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. The protest follows an evangelical Christian revival assembly last week that some Huntington High students were mandated by teachers to attend — a violation of students’ civil rights, Nibert says. PHOTO: AP Photo/Leah M Willingham.
The lawsuit follows a walkout at Huntington High School last week where more than 100 students walked out of their classrooms chanting “Separate church and state” and “My faith, my choice.”
The Associated Press left a voicemail message for Cabell County Schools spokesperson Jedd Flowers seeking comment Thursday afternoon. In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this month, Flowers said the assembly was supposed to be voluntary, but two teachers brought their entire classes to the assembly. Flowers called it an honest mistake on the teachers’ part.
“It’s unfortunate that this happened,” Flowers said. “We don’t think this will ever happen again.”
In a statement Friday, Cabell County Schools Superintendent Ryan Saxe said the district is investigating the revival event and believes the rights of some students were violated. Saxony is named in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says that on Feb. 2, two Huntington High School teachers escorted their entire senior classes to an assembly hosted by evangelical preacher Nik Walker, who had led revivals in the Huntington area in recent weeks.
The students, including a Jewish student who asked to leave but were not allowed to, were told to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer, according to the lawsuit. The teens were invited to give their lives to Jesus to find purpose and salvation. The students said they were told that those who did not follow the Bible would “face eternal torment.”
The mother of the Jewish student who was forced to attend the assembly is among the plaintiffs, along with the Huntington High student who organized last week’s walkout.
During the assemblies, students and their families were encouraged to join evening services at a nearby church, where they could be baptized.
Nik Walker Ministries also visited another district school, Huntington East Middle School, on February 1 and held a similar assembly.
Saxe said last week that the district respects students’ right to express their opinions and respects their right to religious expression, but that “forcing religious expression on those with different beliefs is not acceptable and n is inconsistent with district, state, or federal policy and will not be tolerated by my administration or the Board of Education.”
Advocates for the Freedom From Religion Foundation say religious services — voluntary or otherwise — should not be allowed during school hours. The foundation alleges that it wrote several letters of legal complaint over the years that were ignored by the school district.
In 2017, the foundation alerted schools in Cabell County to two separate religious assemblies that were held during the school day at Huntington High School, according to the lawsuit.
In 2019, the foundation said it wrote to the district about concerns that adults had started and were running church clubs in Cabell County schools.
The plaintiffs seek a permanent injunction prohibiting the district from sponsoring religious worship services, adult-led religious activities during the school day, or participating in such events with students during the school day. They are also seeking damages of US$1 per plaintiff, plus costs and attorneys’ fees.