A Texas high school allowed an Assemblies of God pastor to lead two school assemblies Wednesday despite sharp criticism from a number of atheist organizations. The pastor, Kyle Embry, didn't speak about faith or even introduce himself as a pastor during the event, yet some are accusing him of using the rally as a ploy to lure students to religious services.
Lesley Weaver, director of communications for Northwest Independent School District, said the speakers for the assemblies at Byron Nelson High School in Trophy Club, Texas, did not mention religion during the event, but simply encouraged students to make good choices.
“The idea is to keep the audience engaged and listening but while hearing these serious messages … trying to think about how we treat others and how we take care of ourselves,” she told The Christian Post Thursday.
Embry and two other speakers – a former NFL player and a local Iraq War veteran – covered a number of topics during two school assemblies, including partying and drugs, peer pressure, sexual abstinence, bullying and more. Weaver says the event was designed to be fun – with music and videos for entertainment – but also cover serious topics.
All three speakers were from The Seven Project, a movement affiliated with the Youth Alive ministry of the Assemblies of God church, which alarmed some atheist organizations that then demanded the event be canceled.
“It does appear that they're also a religious-based organization from the Assemblies of God church,” Weaver said of The Seven Project, “but that message was never portrayed during the school day. That was not part of the program.” Although there was no talk of religion during the assemblies, she said students were not forced to attend and there were 15 students who chose not to.
Later that evening, after school was out, Embry held a separate faith-based assembly for students who wanted to participate.
“The content of the school assembly is not the same as the content of the 7@Night event that will be held that evening,” Embry stated in a letter to the media. “Attendance for 7@Night is a voluntarily. It is a faith-based presentation and is sponsored by the student-led campus club, Youth Alive BNHS.”
Embry, a director for Youth Alive North Texas, added that he and his fellow speakers are “professional communicators” who “know the boundaries” of the law for speaking in schools.
Terry McDonald, president of Metroplex Atheists in Grapevine, Texas, accused Embry of being a Trojan horse trying to infiltrate a public school with the message of Jesus.
McDonald says a flier concerning the evening event clearly advertises prizes and games, but only mentions the faith-based theme at the bottom in small letters. The flier also says the evening event was not affiliated with the school district.
"Am I okay with religious people helping kids? You bet. Do I object to a clear violation of church-state separation? Yes I do," McDonald told The Christian Post Thursday.
His nonprofit organization was contacted by someone “at the school” who felt the assemblies would be in violation of church-state laws. His group took action by writing letters to the principal and the school board, and spoke at Monday night's district board of education meeting to try to prevent the assemblies from occurring.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation was also involved in trying to stop the assemblies, stating they were “overtly religious” in nature.
But in a letter to FFRF's attorney, the school district's attorney wrote, “The assembly at Byron Nelson High School has a secular educational purpose that is consistent with the school's curriculum – promoting good citizenship and character ... Simply because a presenter at a curriculum-based program has sincerely-held religious beliefs is, in the District's view, insufficient to cancel the assembly and/or bar the presenter.”