On Wednesday, more than 100 students at Huntington High School in Huntington, West Virginia, staged a walkout to protest a school-sanctioned religious revival that some of their teachers required them to attend.
Earlier this week, teachers told students that during a non-instructive class period called COMPASS, they had to go to an assembly where a Christian prayer revival was set to take place. At the assembly, teens were told to close their eyes, raise their arms in prayer and give their lives to Jesus Christ. They were also told that if they didn’t follow the Bible, they would go to hell after they died.
According to reporting from The Associated Press, one student texted his parent, asking, “Is this legal?”
The tenets of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — and a number of Supreme Court rulings — suggest that it was not. According to the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, public schools cannot prevent students from expressing or sharing religious beliefs during school hours. However, school officials cannot impose prayer or other religious practices in the building, even if students are not required to take part; to do so constitutes a violation of students’ religious freedom.
Many students at Huntington High School — and their parents — agreed that the revival was not appropriate, and that it violated students’ rights.
“I don’t think any kind of religious official should be hosted in a taxpayer-funded building with the express purpose of trying to convince minors to become baptized after school hours,” said senior Max Nibert, one of the students who led the walkout. “My rights are non-negotiable.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation also weighed in on the matter.
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the District to offer religious leaders unique access to preach and proselytize students during school hours on school property,” the organization wrote in a letter to the district.
A spokesperson for Cabell County Schools claimed that the event was optional, and that two teachers made a mistake when they told students they were required to attend.
But once students were at the revival and tried to leave, some were told they couldn’t do so. A Jewish student reported being told they “needed to stay” at the assembly because the classroom where they would otherwise go was locked and unsupervised.
In other words, while the event may have been quietly billed as optional, there were no other options available for students who didn’t want to attend.
“It seems to me like the official line is trying to pass the buck on to these two teachers and really scapegoat them, and certainly they shouldn’t have done what they did, but the event should never have happened at all up at the high school during the school day,” said Jana Tigchelaar, a parent who has two children in the school district.
In response to students’ and parents’ concerns, the school district has said that it “corrected” the problem. However, district officials didn’t explain how the problem had been corrected — and they haven’t given a concrete answer on whether they will host Christian revivals during school hours in the future.
In an open letter to the school, Nibert said that the school’s response won’t cut it.
“By choosing half-hearted apologies and inaction in the aftermath of what happened, those at fault demonstrated their lack of empathy and concern for our well-being,” he said.
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