Parents and students have filed a federal lawsuit after a West Virginia public school district admitted last week that two teachers mistakenly took their high school classes to a voluntary Christian revival assembly hosted by the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Nearly a dozen parents and students represented by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed the lawsuit Thursday. They claim the students’ First Amendment rights were violated because they were forced to attend an assembly led by a local evangelist on Feb. 2 during the school’s equivalent of homeroom period.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Cabell County Board of Education, Superintendent Ryan Saxe and Huntington High Principal Daniel Gleason.
Students allege that the assembly sponsored by the school’s FCA club and led by evangelist Nik Walker sought to convert students to evangelical Christianity. Students were reportedly asked to assemble in prayer and if they wanted to give their lives to Jesus Christ or risk going to Hell.
Jedd Flowers, Cabell County Schools director of communications, had previously told The Christian Post that the assembly was voluntary. However, two teachers had mistakenly taken their entire classes to the event even though there was a sign-up process in place.
“Those teachers have been corrected and the district does not anticipate a similar issue in the future,” Flowers said a statement.
FFRF, which advocates for a strict separation of church and state, argues that teachers’ actions violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The law group contends that the school board and administrators “have not taken sufficient action to stop adults from preaching to students at school and at school-sponsored activities.”
The lawsuit hopes for “significant policy changes, training of employees, and supervision of employees in order to protect the constitutional rights of students.” Further, the complaint calls for the court to bar the school from sponsoring religious assemblies and other religious worship services during the school day.
This is not the first time FFRF has voiced concerns about religious student clubs at Cabell County Schools.
According to the lawsuit, FFRF wrote to Superintendent Saxe on Jan. 10, 2019, about religious clubs called Generation NXT.
Another letter was sent from FFRF to Saxe on March 14, 2019, requesting a written response about what actions had been taken to alleviate its concerns.
But Thursday’s complaint states that Cabell County Schools never responded to FFRF’s letters.
The lawsuit is one of many actions Huntington High School students have taken in response to the Feb. 2 assembly.
Students signed a petition and staged a walkout on Feb. 9 with over 100 students walking out of classrooms and shouting chants like “My faith, my choice.”
Walker, 25, hosts revivals in the Huntington as part of his traveling ministry, Nik Walker Ministries, Inc.
Walker collaborated with a local church, Christ Temple Church, to host the revival event at the school, the lawsuit claims.
“You will remember this service. … You will remember this opportunity ... where you had ... this chance to make it right. And you will be tormented with this memory over, and over, and over, and over, and it never ends, like its eternity,” the lawsuit quotes Walker as saying during the assembly. “And then it’s done. So I present you with a fork in the road this morning.”
The “vision and commitment” of Nik Walker Ministries is “to pursue the work of the Lord,” “pursue the advancement of the Kingdom of God” and “spread the Gospel across the nation.”
Adult volunteers from Christ Temple Church prayed with students who indicated a willingness to give their lives to Christ.
“If you feel a hand on your shoulder, they are going to pray with you, and agree with you, it’s time to follow Jesus right now,” Walker allegedly said.
Walker told The Associated Press that he never contacted the school to do the revival assembly, but students requested him to preach at the event.
“We don’t even have to knock on the door,” Walker said. “The students, they receive hope here [at Christ Temple Church], and then they want to bring hope to their school or to their classmates.”
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), a national Christian ministry with chapters at school campuses nationwide, previously told CP that the organization is “welcoming of all students” and does not force participation in their events.
“One way that FCA shows all individuals respect is by welcoming all people to FCA events on a voluntary basis,” an FCA statement reads. “Coaches, athletes and students are free to choose or deny participation in any FCA event.”