Inside a Kanawha County elementary classroom in West Virginia. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)
It’s a lesson that school officials can learn the easy way or the hard way: Schoolhouses are not churches.
The actions of two West Virginia school systems in recent months illustrate this quite clearly. Both school systems erred by forcing religious views onto a captive audience of students, but one chose costly litigation while the other sought to learn more about how to respect students’ constitutional rights.
To be clear, the government has no business sponsoring prayer, let alone mandating student participation. School officials should establish and enforce the clearest possible policies protecting all students’ religious freedom.
While the American Civil Liberties Union is often recognized first and foremost by our landmark court cases, we actually view legal action as a last resort. We’d much rather have conversations with government officials about best practices than take them to court.
Take the Cabell County Board of Education for example. In 2022, teachers told students to attend an evangelical Christian assembly during school hours. Students, including a Jewish student who asked to leave but was forced to stay, were told to close their eyes, raise their arms in prayer, and surrender to Jesus for salvation. Nik Walker, the preacher leading the revival, said those students who refused would go to hell.
Parents expressed outrage, media coverage descended on the school, students staged a walkout, but no corrective action was offered. Our friends at the Freedom From Religion Foundation then brought a lawsuit on behalf of several students.
Late last month, the school board entered into a $175,000 settlement paid by the school system’s insurer. As part of the settlement, Cabell has issued a stronger policy on religious freedom, and teachers will be required to attend regular trainings on how to respect students’ rights.
The fiasco stands in stark contrast to recent actions by the Doddridge County Board of Education.
Earlier this year, Doddridge County High School students were told to attend a “suicide prevention assembly” that was actually sponsored by self-identified Christian evangelist Bob Holmes. When ACLU-WV contacted the school board, officials immediately acknowledged wrongdoing and asked for resources on how to tackle suicide prevention in a way that respected everyone’s rights.
We recently reached out to the school board with a list of religiously neutral resources to help students navigate issues like suicide and self-harm, and we look forward to a continued productive relationship on the matter.
Missteps will occur from time to time. But what’s important is that remedies are offered and lessons are learned. We encourage any government agency in this type of situation to follow the example of Doddridge County, not Cabell County.
The ACLU of West Virginia is always available to provide guidance on these issues and we welcome conversations that can prevent violations of the Constitution. But when the government tramples people’s rights, those who value freedom will show up.
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