CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A group of parents and students are suing a West Virginia school district for allowing an evangelical preacher to hold a religious revival assembly during the school day earlier this month that some students were required to attend. The suit, filed in a U.S. District Court in West Virginia on Thursday (Feb. 17) on behalf of families by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says the Cabell County school system in the southwestern part of the state has a systematic history of disregarding the religious freedom of its students and instituting Christian religious practices.
“For years, school system employees have violated the constitutional rights of students by promoting and advancing the Christian religion, as well as by coercing students into participating in Christian religious activity,” the suit reads.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nonprofit that promotes the separation of church and state. The suit follows a walkout at Huntington High School last week where more than 100 students left their classrooms chanting, “Separate the church and state,” and, “My faith, my choice.”
The Associated Press left a voicemail with Cabell County Schools spokesperson Jedd Flowers requesting comment Thursday afternoon. During 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 by the teachers.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened,” Flowers said. “We don’t believe it will ever happen again.”
In a statement on Friday, Cabell County Schools Superintendent Ryan Saxe said the district is investigating the revival event and that he believes some students’ rights have been violated. Saxe is named in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says that on Feb. 2, two Huntington High School teachers escorted their entire homeroom classes to an assembly hosted by evangelical preacher Nik Walker, who had been leading revivals in the Huntington area in recent weeks. Students, including a Jewish student who asked to leave but was not permitted to do so, were instructed to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer, according to the lawsuit. The teens were asked to give their lives over to Jesus to find purpose and salvation. Students said they were told that those who did not follow the Bible would go to “face eternal torment.”
The mother of the Jewish student who was forced to attend the assembly is among the suit’s plantiffs, 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 Feb. 1 and held a similar assembly.
Saxe said last week that the district honors students’ rights to express their views and respects their right to religious expression but that “forcing religious expression on those with differing beliefs is not acceptable and is not in alignment with district, state, or federal policy and will not be tolerated by my administration or the Board of Education.”
Freedom From Religion Foundation lawyers say that religious services — voluntary or not — should not be allowed during school hours. The foundation alleges it has written several legal complaint letters over the course of years that have been ignored by the school district. In 2017, the foundation alerted Cabell County Schools about 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 regarding concerns that adults had created and were running religious clubs within Cabell County Schools.
Plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction barring the district from sponsoring any 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 $1 per plaintiff, plus costs and attorneys’ fees.