In a West Virginia community of fewer than 50,000 people, students were ushered into an assembly between their calculus and European history classes, 16-year-old Cameron Mays told ABC News. They were told to close their eyes in prayer and urged to turn their lives over to Christ to avoid the ever-popular threat of eternal damnation, Mays said.
When Bethany Felinton's Jewish son asked to leave, a teacher told him he couldn't because the classroom was locked. “Is this legal?” one student reportedly texted to his father. “My mind was blown,” Max Nibert, a senior at the school, Huntington High, told WCHS. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Not exactly how I’d want my children introduced to Christianity. When Cabell County Schools spokesperson Jedd Flowers was asked how an evangelical revival became a requirement during the school's daily COMPASS "noninstructional break," he said teachers mistook the voluntary event organized by the school's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as required. “It’s unfortunate that it happened,” Flowers said. "We don’t believe it will ever happen again.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and other advocacy groups are arguing the mistake never should've even been a possibility. “If you’re a public school student, you don’t check your constitutional rights at the schoolhouse doors,” the nonprofit said in an article shared in response to the news. “But whether schools can punish you for speaking out depends on when, where, and how you decide to express yourself.”
Students organized a walkout in protest on Wednesday.
“This walk-out is an attempt to convey our grievance,” Nibert wrote in a letter to school and district officials. “[R]esponses from the administration and the county Board of Education were not satisfactory.
“Student rights are non-negotiable, and by choosing half-hearted apologies and inaction in the aftermath of what happened, those at fault demonstrated their lack of empathy and concern for our well-being.”
Natalie Wadas, a WOWK reporter, tweeted before the protest began that journalists weren’t being allowed on the campus to cover the walkout.
"I’m standing outside of Huntington High School’s campus, where a student walkout is planned to happen in just a few moments,” Wadas tweeted. “A spokesman for the district says media is not allowed on school grounds because it is not a school-sanctioned event. I am working to get more details."
Christopher Line, staff attorney for the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote a letter urging the district’s general counsel to “take more seriously its obligation to remain neutral when it comes to religion.”
Line wrote in the letter:
“Multiple people, including multiple District parents, have reported that on February 2, 2022, Huntington High School invited a preacher named Nik Walker to preach to and proselytize students at the school. It is our understanding that Nik Walker was allowed to preach to students during the school day, and one of our complainants reports that their child’s teacher required students to attend this religious assembly. While we understand that this was supposed to be anFCA event, many staff members, teachers, and even the school’s principal took part in this school-sponsored religious revival, and certain students who “needed it” were reportedly encouraged by teachers to attend. We have been provided videos from the assembly and have confirmed that this was a full on religious service led by Nik Walker during school hours that many students were required to attend. He talked about salvation through Jesus and that students who did not follow the bible would go to hell. Nik Walker led students in prayer and students were encouraged to attend Nik Walker’s revival being held at a local church. We understand a similar event was held at Huntington East Middle School as well.
Our complainants’ accounts are corroborated by a post Nik Walker has made on his social media pages. Walker bragged about converting District students: “What a morning! We just got back from Boyd County High School and Huntington High School where right at 50 students gave their lives to Jesus at their voluntary club meetings!” It is clear from our complaints’ accounts that these were not voluntary club meetings, but school-sponsored religious assemblies taking place during the school day with school staff members present.”
Line added in the letter:
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders unique access to preach and proselytize students during school hours on school property. No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school.”
I have no issue with religious student groups operating on school campuses. I was a part of one in high school, and it was a source of support and understanding for me. But here’s the thing about such groups: Choice is essential.
Weaving an evangelical sermon into the instructional day is unacceptable, as is the explanation that a simple misunderstanding is to blame. Anyone familiar with the history of colonization in Africa, South America, or North America should know the atrocities people commit in the name of religion.
What happened at Huntington High School is more than “unfortunate.” It is triggering.