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Judge: Families can sue over W.Va. religious revival

Photo by the Associated Press
Max Nibert holds up signs prior to a student walkout at his high school in early 2022 in Huntington, W.Va. (Photo by the Associated Press)

A federal judge ruled on Dec. 12 that families in Huntington, W. Va., can proceed with their lawsuit against a school district for hosting a religious revival during the school day. The Freedom From Religion Foundation represents the group of students and parents, who filed suit in February.

U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers issued a decision saying that the plaintiffs properly alleged violations of their First Amendment rights by the Cabell County Board of Education (BOE) and two school system employees.

“Plaintiffs clearly allege that the BOE has a long-standing custom and practice of allowing staff and outside adults to initiate, lead and promote evangelical Christianity as part of programming within the schools in the district,” Chambers wrote in his opinion. 

Chambers found that the “plaintiffs have adequately alleged that the pervasive and unabated actions of defendants in violation of the Establishment Clause are sufficient to show there is a ‘real and immediate’ risk of repetition that S.F. will be forced to attend other religious events at school.” The judge also determined that at least one of the student plaintiffs, identified by the initials S.F., has standing to bring the lawsuit and to pursue an injunction.

Chambers dismissed claims against school officials that were brought in their “official capacities” because those claims are redundant to claims against the Board of Education. That determination will have little effect on the case as it proceeds.

The revival was put on by evangelist Nik Walker, who runs Nik Walker Ministries. Although the event was billed as voluntary, two teachers escorted their entire classes to the revival, where students were instructed to bow their heads in prayer, raise up their hands, and were warned to follow Jesus or face eternal torment.

More than 100 students, led by Huntington High School senior Max Nibert, staged a dramatic walkout on Feb. 9 to protest some students being forced to attend the evangelical Christian revival at the school on Feb. 2. The walkout, with students chanting “Separate the church and state” and “My faith, my choice,” was covered not only nationally by the Washington Post, NPR and CNN but also internationally.

The legal complaint in the case, Mays v. Cabell County Board of Education, notes, “For years, school system employees have violated the constitutional rights of students by promoting and advancing the Christian religion, as well as by coercing students into participating in Christian religious activity.” 

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. Huntington High Principal Daniel Gleason was present at the assembly along with assistant principals.

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.

Nibert passed around a petition during the rally, getting about 75 signatures. During the protest, he said: “I have never been prouder of a group of my peers than I am right now. When ordinary citizens find their circumstances to be unfair, they change them. And that’s exactly what we’re doing today.”

This revival is not the first time that FFRF has contacted the school system regarding religious entanglement issues. The national state/church watchdog has written several legal complaint letters about adult proselytizing, prayer and religious practices aimed at students within Cabell County Schools. The lawsuit challenges not only the revival event, but also the school system’s history of disregarding the religious freedom of its students and its promotion of Christian religious practices.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Marcus Schneider and Kristina Whiteaker, as well as FFRF attorneys Patrick Elliott, Sam Grover and Christopher Line.