FFRF to Ala. school district: Stop gaslighting over your religious assembly

Despite an evangelist bragging over social media about his “talk about Jesus” and “hundreds of teenagers…receiv[ing] prayer” during a high school assembly, an Alabama school district is doubling down and insisting it was “not a religious assembly,” charges a state/church watchdog.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation earlier this month wrote to Elmore County School District advising them that the principal of Stanhope Elmore High School, located in Millbrook, inappropriately permitted the religious assembly.

Multiple district parents reported that Recovery ALIVE Founder/CEO John Eklund was allowed to deliver a mandatory “mental health” seminar religious assembly where students were subjected to Christian proselytizing. Recovery ALIVE is a Christian 12-step program that “prioritizes the Power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit to raise Hope From The Dead.” It “harnesses the unchanging truth of Jesus Christ and His word to a living, organic process, in order to reach and ministry to an ever-changing world.”

In response to FFRF’s letter,  Superintendent Richard Dennis claims that the assembly was not mandatory for students, and was not a “religious assembly.” Dennis claims that the “purpose of the assembly was to provide students with tools and information to deal with overcoming anxiety and emotional difficulties,” and that the “crux of Mr. Eklund’s address was to encourage students to seek help and therapy for any mental issues that they may experience, not religion.”

The superintendent’s claims are in stark contrast to Eklund’s Facebook post that included multiple photos of students gathered in prayer, along with an admission that he had come in to “talk about Jesus and Recovery in a large public high school.” In a post about the assembly on Facebook, Eklund said that he “told Principal Fuller at Stanhope Elmore High School that [he] was amazed at his willingness to let [them] come in and talk about Jesus and Recovery in a large public high school.” He reported that Fuller’s response was, “I’ve been doing this for 26 years. If I’m gonna get in trouble, it might as well be for Jesus!” The post also indicated that “during two assemblies, hundreds of teenagers flooded central court to receive prayer for struggles of value and worth.” The post emphasized that students participated in prayer at this school assembly and thanked Shoal Creek Baptist Church for “breathing life into the vision of bringing the Christ centered 12 steps into local public high schools!”

FFRF’s complainants, including two parents, reported that during the assembly Eklund told students that “Jesus Christ set him on his path of redemption” and “he will save them too.” Eklund reportedly offered students money to come down and be “prayed over.” He also reportedly told students to attend church and passed out pamphlets advertising Shoal Creek Baptist Church.

While the superintendent’s response to FFRF indicated that “school faculty and staff will continue to be reminded of students’ rights,” the district’s denial of the true religious nature of the assembly raises concern that the district would allow Eklund or other evangelists to target a captive audience of students in the future.

With the help of local parents, FFRF will vigilantly monitor the District’s actions going forward to ensure this unconstitutional activity does not recur. FFRF recently settled a lawsuit against a West Virginia school district after it similarly allowed a preacher to recruit students during the school day (Mays v. Cabell County Board of Education, 2022). As part of that settlement, the district agreed to pay FFRF nearly $175,000 in attorney fees.

“We’re calling on the district to stop gaslighting the situation and adopt clear policy disallowing religious assemblies masquerading as secular seminars,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Elmore School District must take action to protect its students from preying (and praying) evangelists.”

You can read FFRF’s original letter here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members across the country, including hundreds of members in Alabama. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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