It’s as if the First Amendment doesn’t even exist.
Over 100 students at Huntington High School in West Virginia organized a walkout yesterday in protest of what they say was an infringement of their rights of freedom of religion after some students were required to attend what was described as a “voluntary evangelical sermon” organized by The Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
According to an account provided to the Associated Press by Cameron Mays, a 16-year-old student at the school:
“When students arrived at the event in the school’s auditorium, they were instructed to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer, Mays said. The teens were asked to give their lives over to Jesus to find purpose and salvation. Those who did not follow the Bible would go to hell when they died, they were told.”
Mays immediately texed his father to describe what was happening, asking “is this legal?”
Given that Huntington High School is a publicly funded school the Constitution is quite clear that it is not the least bit kosher to promote one religion over another under the First Amendment’s requirements for the separation of church and state.
“Just to see that defamed and ignored in such a blatant way, it’s disheartening,”said Huntington High School senior Max Nibert.
Nibert, carrying a sign that read “My rights are non-negotiable,” joined over 100 of his classmates in staging a walkout during homeroom yesterday, leaving their classrooms while chanting “Separate the church and state” and “My faith, my choice.”
School officials reportedly turned away journalists attempting to cover the walkout.
“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 told the Associated Press.
While the religious gathering was supposed to be entirely voluntary, two of the school’s teachers somehow missed that distinction and brought their entire classes, including Jewish and non-believing students, to the rally, thinking that it was a mandatory assembly.
“Bethany Felinton said her Jewish son was one of the students forced to attend the assembly at Huntington High,” theAssociated Press reports. “She said that when he asked to leave, the teacher told him their classroom door was locked and he couldn’t go. He sat back down in his seat, uncomfortable. Felinton said he felt he couldn’t disobey his teacher.”
“’It’s a completely unfair and unacceptable situation to put a teenager in,’ she said. ‘I’m not knocking their faith, but there’s a time and place for everything — and in public schools, during the school day, is not the time and place.’”
The incident has raised questions about whether even voluntary religious services should be allowed on the premises during school hours at all.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to ensuring the separation of church and state, wrote in a letter to the Cabell County school district that it cannot “allow its schools to be used as recruiting grounds for churches.”
“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 letter stated.
Jedd Flowers, a spokesperson for the Cabell County school district, told the Associated Press that it regretted the mistake made by the two teachers.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened,” he said. “We don’t believe it will ever happen again.”
Meanwhile, students like Max Nibert are happy to find considerable support among their peers for their anger over the violation of their First Amendment rights.
“I have never been prouder of a group of my peers than I am right now,” Nibert said to the crowd during the walkout. “When ordinary citizens find their circumstances to be unfair, they change them. And that’s exactly what we’re doing today.”
For all the constitutional originalism spouted by right-wing evangelicals, it’s ironic that such contempt for the First Amendment seems to govern their behavior.
You can watch the Associated Press video report on the walkout below.
Original reporting by The Associated Press via KDKA 2 CBS Pittsburgh.
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Vinnie Longobardo is the Managing Editor of Occupy Democrats. He's a 35-year veteran of the TV, mobile & internet industries, specializing in start-ups and the international media business. His passions are politics, music, and art.