Nearly a dozen parents and students, with help from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, filed a high-profile federal lawsuit today over a Christian revival in a West Virginia school that prompted a recent student walkout.
More than 100 students, led by Huntington High School senior Max Nibert, staged a dramatic walkout on Feb. 9 to protest some students being forced to attend an evangelical Christian revival at the school on Feb. 2. The walkout, with students chanting “Separate the church and state” and “My faith, my choice,” was covered not only nationally by the Washington Post, NPR and CNN but also internationally.
The legal complaint in the case, Mays v. Cabell County Board of Education, notes, “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 lawsuit charges that two Huntington High School teachers during homeroom on Feb. 2 escorted their entire classes to the revival. Students, including a Jewish student who asked to leave but was not permitted to do so, were instructed to bow their heads in prayer and raise up their hands and were warned they needed to make a decision to follow Jesus or face eternal torment. Adult volunteers from a local church went into the crowd to pray with students. Plaintiff students observed teachers and administrators praying with church volunteers. Huntington High Principal Daniel Gleason was present at the assembly along with assistant principals.
Evangelist Nik Walker, who runs Nik Walker Ministries and had been leading revivals in Huntington for weeks, even prayed to thank God for the fact “that you are not going to let these students leave without . . . knowing you.”
FFRF has written several legal complaint letters over adult proselytizing, prayer and religious practices aimed at students within Cabell County Schools, which have been ignored.
Huntington East Middle School held separate Nik Walker Ministries assemblies on Feb. 1. It is FFRF’s understanding that a staff member requested the events and that some students attending those assemblies did not do so voluntarily. It seems parents were not informed in advance.
The lawsuit contends, “At the behest of adult evangelists, Huntington High School held an assembly for students that sought to convert students to evangelical Christianity. Some students were forced to attend. Regardless of whether attendance is mandatory or voluntary, the defendants violate the First Amendment by permitting, coordinating and encouraging students to attend an adult-led worship service and revival at their school during the school day. Parents and students bring this suit to stop these practices.”
Bethany Felinton, mother of the Jewish student, is one of the plaintiffs, along with three of her children. Most student plaintiffs are identified only by initials, with the exception of Max Nibert. They are suing the Cabell County Board of Education, its superintendent and Huntington High School Principal Daniel Gleason. Plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction enjoining 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. Plaintiffs are seeking nominal damages in the amount of $1 per plaintiffs, plus costs and attorney’s fees.
Nibert, who is a named plaintiff, passed around a petition during the rally, getting about 75 signatures. During the protest, he said: “I have never been prouder of a group of my peers than I am right now. When ordinary citizens find their circumstances to be unfair, they change them. And that’s exactly what we’re doing today.”
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker is full of admiration for the students.
“We are so proud of these students and their parents for standing up for our secular schools and for student rights of conscience,” he says. “And we’re proud that FFRF is representing these champions of the First Amendment.”
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs include outside counsel Marc Schneider, FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott, FFRF Attorney Chris Line and West Virginia-based attorney Kristina Thomas Whiteaker.
(Pictured: Max Nibert. AP Photo/Leah M. Willingham)