HUNTINGTON, WV — Between calculus and European history classes at a public high school in West Virginia, 16-year-old Cameron Mays and his classmates were invited by their teacher to attend a revival assembly evangelical Christian.
When students arrived at the event in the school auditorium, they were asked to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer, Mays said. The teens were invited to give their lives to Jesus to find purpose and salvation. Those who did not follow the Bible would go to hell when they died, they were told.
The Huntington High School junior texted his dad.
“Is it legal? ” He asked.
The answer, according to the US Constitution, is no. In fact, the separation of church and state is one of the basic founding principles of the country, noted Max Nibert, a high school student from Huntington.
“Just to see this vilified and ignored so blatantly is disheartening,” he said.
Nibert and other Huntington students plan to hold a walkout during main class time on Wednesday to protest the assembly.
“I don’t think any kind of religious leader should be housed in a taxpayer-funded building for the express purpose of trying to get minors to get baptized after school hours,” Nibert said.
The mini-revival took place last week during COMPASS, a daily “non-teaching” break in the schedule during which students can study for tests, work on college prep or listen to guest speakers, said Cabell County Schools spokesperson Jedd Flowers.
Flowers said the event was voluntary, organized by the school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He said there was supposed to be a sign-up sheet for the students, but two teachers mistakenly brought their entire class.
“It’s unfortunate that this happened,” Flowers said. “We don’t believe this will ever happen again.”
But in this community of less than 50,000 people in southwestern West Virginia, the controversy has sparked a wider conversation about whether religious services — voluntary or not — should be allowed during school hours. . A parent group, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and other organizations say the answer to this question is also no. They say such events are a gross violation of students’ civil rights.
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders single access to preach and proselytize during school hours on school property,” wrote Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit organization. charity that promotes the separation of church and state, in a letter to the school district. The district cannot “allow its schools to be used as a recruiting ground for churches,” the letter read.
Last week’s assembly at Huntington High featured a sermon by 25-year-old evangelical preacher Nik Walker of Nik Walker Ministries, who has been leading revivals in the Huntington area for more than two weeks.
During assemblies, students and their families are encouraged to join evening services at the nearby Temple of Christ Church. More than 450 people, including 200 students, have been baptized at the church, according to Walker, who said he was soon to go to another public school and nearby Marshall University.
Bethany Felinton said her Jewish son was one of the students forced to attend assembly at Huntington High. She said that when he asked to leave, the teacher told him that their classroom door was locked and he couldn’t go. He sat back in his seat, uncomfortably. Felinton said he felt he couldn’t disobey his teacher.
“It’s a completely unfair and unacceptable situation to place a teenager,” she said. “I’m not knocking on their faith, but there’s a time and a place for everything – and in public schools, during the school day, that’s not the time and place.”
Mays’ father, Herman Mays, agrees.
“They can’t just play this game of, you know, ‘We’re going to choose this time as leeway, this gray area where we think we can insert a church service,'” he said.
Walker said he never contacted a school to come talk; it is always the students who call on his ministry, he said.
“We don’t even have to knock on the door,” he said. “Students, they get hope here (at Christ Temple Church) and then they want to bring hope to their school or their classmates.”
Walker, from the small town of Mullens, West Virginia, has traveled the state since he was 17 and held church meetings in schools. He said he came to Huntington on January 23 with the intention of leaving three days later, but saw a need he felt compelled to meet.
Walker said he sees a lot of “desperation” in the Huntington area: college students struggling with drug addiction, anxiety and depression.
“When you see areas like this, then you really know they need the Lord,” he said, drinking a cup of hot tea with honey to soothe his throat after a few hours of preaching.
Tolsia High School rookie Mckenzie Cassell said she was thrilled Walker was coming to talk to her and her peers. She attends Christ Temple Church, where she says she now sees many more young people since Walker started her work in the schools.
“It’s great to see a lot of young kids coming,” she said.
Cassell’s tutor, Cindy Cassell, said it was powerful to see someone make such an impression on the town’s youth.
“The kids want it and they’re ready for a change in the right direction,” she said.
The Cassells attended a service at Christ Temple Church in Huntington on Monday night with Walker and more than 400 others.
At the end of the service, Walker invited people to come to the front of the congregation, where the other parishioners laid their hands on their backs. They were then escorted to an adjoining room, where they changed into white robes to be baptized. Some were crying as they got out of the water, the fabric sticking to their skin, their hands up.