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After forcing kids to attend religious revival, WV school district settles case for $175,000
The 2022 assembly featured Nik Walker Ministries and prompted a student-led walkout days later
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More than 18 months after teachers in a public school district in West Virginia forced students to attend an in-school religious revival, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has settled a federal lawsuit against the Cabell County Board of Education. The settlement will require the school board to pay FFRF nearly $175,000 in attorneys’ fees along with a (mostly symbolic) $1 in nominal damages to each plaintiff. The money, FFRF said, was “paid by the board’s insurer.”
The religious revival assembly
The assembly in question occurred in February of 2022 at Huntington High School and featured Nik Walker Ministries. Walker has long made clear his desire to proselytize in public schools; he’s bragged on Facebook about giving talks at local high schools with an intent to convert kids and believes that if students invite him to their school, he has a license to preach. After his visit to Huntington, he even bragged that “50 students gave their lives to Jesus at their voluntary club meetings!”
That was a lie. (It’s not like Walker visited an after-school Bible club.) He was the focus of an assembly that took place during the school day. Students also told local news channel WSAZ that the assembly wasn’t voluntary, with some saying they “had to attend” the assembly. Parents weren’t even required to sign a permission slip.
The school appeared to agree with that characterization, calling the assembly a “mistake.”
Jedd Flowers, Director of Communications at Cabell County Schools, referred to the situation as a “mistake.”
“Of course, as soon as we heard about the situation we did make the changes that we had to make. Unfortunately, the teachers made a mistake in this case in taking the students and taking them to that as part of a requirement. It was a mistake,” Flowers said. “It was something we addressed immediately and we hope that will never happen again.”
That statement might be acceptable if it was an honest reflection on an error. But there were many reasons to think Flowers and the district were just trying to cover their asses.
Consider that mistakes like these never happen with Islamic or Satanist or atheist speakers; this is an exclusively Christian phenomenon.
Consider that audio from the assembly made it clear this was a religious revival, and not a single adult in the crowd appeared to do anything to put a stop to it.
Consider that Walker was invited to the school without even having to provide a cover story. It’s not like he was supposed to talk about avoiding drugs… then shoved some Jesus into the lecture. This was all about pushing his faith on the kids. There was no secular reason this should’ve been allowed in a public school during regular hours.
What about those teachers who said attendance was required? One of them, a student claimed, deliberately referred to Nik Walker as a “guest speaker” with no mention of his religious affiliation while another said certain students (Jewish ones) “needed it.” Students were also told that leaving the religious revival could result in a suspension.
Perhaps the worst “mistake” was when the district rationalized their error by saying the assembly was student-led and occurred during “non-instructional time.” It wasn’t student-led and the assembly took place during what’s known as the COMPASS period. That’s basically a “homeroom” period meant to give students a chance to meet with their teachers for extra help. Just because students aren’t formally in class doesn’t mean they’re not supposed to be learning anything. To pretend it’s not instructional is insulting.
All of this led students like Max Nibert to stage a walkout during that supposed “non-instructional time.” In a letter sent to school officials and the Cabell County School Board, Nibert wrote that his goal was to fight for a “better, fairer tomorrow.”
… if a revivalist Christian sermon can be held for students [during the COMPASS period], we claim the absolute ability to protest the violation of our rights that accompanied this sermon during the same (apparently pointless) period.
This walk-out is an attempt to convey our grievance; responses from the administration and the county Board of Education were not satisfactory. Student rights are non-negotiable, and 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.
Nibert was joined by over 100 students, who held up signs and chanted things like “Separate the church and state,” “My faith, my choice,” and “My rights are non-negotiable.” (Not bad, West Virginia!)
Around that same time, the Freedom From Religion Foundation also got involved, sending a letter to district officials asking for more clarification on this so-called “mistake” and calling on the district to reprimand staff members who acted like this religious revival was mandatory. They also made a record request regarding who invited Walker to the school and why.
This wasn’t the district’s only “mistake”
If this was the first and only time this district made such a grievous error, perhaps an apology would suffice. Turns out that wasn’t the case at all. This district had repeatedly made the same “mistake” over the years.
According to FFRF, the district had either an actual policy or one in effect that allowed “teachers to initiate and lead religious activity for students,” allowing outside adults to preach to students at school-sponsored events, and no one in charge did anything to stop it.
For example, in 2019, FFRF wrote to Superintendent Ryan Saxe regarding religious “Generation NXT” clubs that had been created by adults. No response ever came.
In 2017, FFRF wrote to the previous superintendent, William A. Smith, about similar religious assemblies during the school day. Even though the district issued a statement saying they were taking precautions to prevent those events from occurring, they clearly hadn’t done enough.
Most damning of all? Administrators and teachers had “participated [in] and encouraged” these Christian activities while failing to receive any proper training about how that’s illegal.
As for the assembly with Nik Walker, FFRF discovered that Principal Daniel Gleason approved it, attended it, knew it wasn’t student-led, and did nothing to stop the event even when it became clear what was happening.
The federal lawsuit
FFRF soon filed a federal lawsuit against the district on behalf of Max Nibert along with the parents of several other students.
… 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.
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.
To be clear, these were not atheist students holding a grudge. These were students who understood the law better than the adults running the school district. This wasn’t about money either. For no other religion would these kinds of shenanigans be permitted. The only reason Nik Walker was given access to students was because he’s Christian. (It’s not like he was invited because of his incredible research skills.)
Walker is a professional liar who had doors illegally opened for him by administrators who cared more about indoctrinating kids than educating them.
FFRF spent years politely asking this district to put a stop to all this. They refused to comply.
And now there’s finally a sense of victory.
According to a press release from FFRF, the district has “agreed to significant changes in policy that would prevent future such violations” as part of the settlement.
Annual in-service training for all employees regarding church/state separation laws. Among other things, the policy (#8800) says “staff members shall not use prayer, religious reading, or religious symbols as a devotional exercise or in an act of worship or celebration, in a school setting.”
Making sure principals “will attempt in good faith to monitor school graduations, assemblies, athletic events, and other school-sponsored activities” to check that religion isn’t seeping through.
Requiring those employees to report any potential violations to the superintendent within seven days.
Forbidding employees from initiating religious worship with students.
Many of these policies were already in place before FFRF filed the lawsuit; the district just has to follow its own damn rules now. The training is new, though, as is the reporting requirement.
Herman Mays, who is the father of one of the students forced to attend the revival, says, “This settlement with the Cabell County Board of Education enacts meaningful policy changes and enforcement and training for staff and teachers on their constitutional responsibilities to ensure that what happened in Cabell public schools in February 2022 will not occur again.”
FFRF is awarding $2,000 scholarships to six of the student participants in the case in honor of their activism. Former student Max Nibert previously was awarded an activist award in 2022.
Everyone wins. More importantly, all of this would have been avoidable had the district just followed the law to begin with. Instead, they did everything they could to shove Jesus in kids’ faces, violating the law. It’s about time they faced some consequences for it.
Nik Walker did not reply to a request for comment.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)