High school scrutinized over evangelistic event
Flap at West Virginia school shows religious assemblies at school are permissible if voluntary and student-led
More than 100 students at a West Virginia high school staged a homeroom walkout last week to protest what they say was an inappropriate Christian assembly at their school. But it appears the Christian meeting was legally permissible, even if some teachers’ actions raised constitutional problems.
The Feb. 2 Christian event was led by Nik Walker, a local Huntington evangelist, and sponsored by Huntington High School’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The meeting occurred during a noninstructional school day period during which students can study for tests, work on college prep, or listen to guest speakers, Cabell County Schools spokesperson Jedd Flowers told the Associated Press.
Flowers said the event was voluntary, but noted that two teachers mistakenly brought their entire classes. The students in those classes said they were not given the opportunity to opt out of the Christian event.
“We don’t believe it will ever happen again,” Flowers said.
The school district did not immediately respond to my question about whether the teachers simply misunderstood the school policy, or whether they would face discipline. In a statement on its website, the district said it was investigating the incident.
The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and the Freedom From Religion Foundation quickly weighed in, arguing along with some students and parents that religious services should never be allowed during school hours. One high-school senior, Max Nibert, cited separation of church and state: “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,” Nibert said.
Yet Brad Jacob, a law professor at Regent University, rejected the notion of such a strict separation between church and state. He noted it is possible for schools to provide opportunities for religious speakers to address students, but only under strict limitations. The Supreme Court has made it clear in multiple rulings that school-sponsored religious activities violate the Constitution’s establishment clause, but student-initiated events do not, he said.
“For this assembly (even if truly voluntary), to be constitutional, the school would have to show that this was a student-driven event in a limited public forum,” said Jacob in an email. “Is this noninstructional time open to a variety of outside speakers and organizations? How many other groups have had assemblies in the auditorium (as opposed to a few kids with a speaker in a classroom)?”
In fact, if the school opens noninstructional time to students to host other extracurricular groups, it would be a violation of the Equal Access Act to exclude religious meetings, Jacob said. That nondiscriminatory approach mandated by the 1984 law forbids public schools from receiving federal funds if they deny students the First Amendment right to conduct religious meetings.
Under the 1984 law, meetings have to be student-initiated, voluntary, and limited to noninstructional time. Huntington High School appears to have met all those conditions, except in the case of the two teachers who required their students to sit through the message.
Though some students protested the Nik Walker event, others supported it: Nearby Tolsia High School freshman Mckenzie Cassell said she was excited to have Walker bring his message to students at her school. Her guardian, Cindy Cassell, added, “The kids want it and they’re ready for change in the right direction.”
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