Students protest the promotion of religious fundamentalism at a public school in West Virginia

On Wednesday, several hundred students staged a protest against a mandatory religious revivalism program being held at a high school in Huntington, West Virginia. At least 150 students from Huntington High School walked out after a group of religious students hosted Nik Walker Ministries, a Christian fundamentalist religious group, at a student assembly.

Students demonstrate outside Huntington High School. (Sophie Eastone)

While the event was supposed to be optional for the student body, several classrooms were told that this event was mandatory. The students were then herded into an auditorium where they were “told to close their eyes, raise their arms in prayer, and give their lives to Jesus Christ,” according to a Truthout article.

Bethany Cooper-Felinton, a parent and educator from Huntington, explained what happened, speaking to the World Socialist Website. “Two classes were mandated to go and the others were ‘volunteered,'” she said. “‘Volunteer’ or not, this should never have been on school grounds, it was a sermon in its own right – hell and damnation.”

Cooper-Felinton’s son, Sam, was forced to attend the Christian religious event even though he is Jewish. He “texted my husband and myself about the revival and asked if it was legal,” she said. His teacher reportedly told him he couldn’t leave the event.

“We are a blended family. I have always been very proud of it. We have worked very hard to raise our family and give our children every opportunity to learn,” Felinton told the WSWS. “That’s why we go to public school, to learn to tolerate all walks of life.”

Sophie, a junior, told the WSWS that several of her friends were also forced to attend. “It made the kids very uncomfortable,” she said, noting that there were students from many backgrounds in both classes, including Muslim and Jewish students.

“I want to be very clear: this was not a protest against Christianity. I’m the lead singer of a Christian band that travels all over the region. This demonstration was aimed at defending our right to the separation of Church and State.

Sophie watched a recording from one of her friends of the event. “I was disgusted,” she said. “The speakers used to say that if you are not a Christian and you die, you will spend eternity in hell. If you don’t accept Jesus, you will go straight to hell.

“It’s heartbreaking. We have all had difficulties in recent years,” she added. “I can’t imagine how I would feel if I was forced to go there and told over and over again how I needed to be saved. I think it’s hypocritical for the speaker to say something like that as a Christian.

The event took place during a ‘non-teaching’ period known as COMPAS, during which students are encouraged to use the time to study. “If a revivalist Christian sermon can be organized for students, we claim the absolute ability to protest against the violation of our rights which has accompanied this sermon during the same…period,” reads a letter sent to the Cabell County Board of Education by Huntington senior Max Nibert, leader of the Wednesday challenge.

Nibert and other students gathered outside the school with signs reading “My rights are non-negotiable”, “Separate church and state” and other slogans. According to Nibert, there were “150 to 200” students present.

Student signs outside Huntington High School. (Sophie Eastone)

Despite the high turnout, student protests “fell on deaf ears”, he said. “Several directors oversaw our event; their unaffected nature was palpable and when given the opportunity to address the student body, they declined.

The students launched a petition calling on the county council to “take further action” regarding the incident.

“It seems to me that the official line is trying to shift the blame onto these two teachers and really scapegoat them,” mother Jana Tigchelaar said in a comment to Truthout. “They shouldn’t have done what they did, but the event should never have happened in high school during the school day.”

“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,'” said Herman Mays, a parent, at The Associated Press. Mays’ son Cameron was also present at the event.

A letter sent by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations advocating separation of church and state to the Cabell County School District said it was “inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders unique access to preach and proselytize. school hours on school property.

Walker, the evangelical minister, was invited by Future Christian Athletes (FCA), a group of students from the school. The evangelical minister boasted that his ministry “doesn’t even have to knock on the door” of public establishments, but is invited by parishioners who attend the schools.

“When you see regions like this, you really know they need the Lord,” he said, referring to the social devastation that has plagued the region after years of deindustrialization and declining poverty. quality of life.

The fight to defend jobs and living conditions in an economically degraded region like Huntington is inseparable from the fight to defend democratic rights, such as the separation of church and state. In a subsequent social media post, the leaders of the student protests implicitly note this. “There are deep-rooted issues that we all understand [involved in this protest]“says Max.

The student singles out “falling coal supply and demand, endemic and heartbreaking opioid addiction, rapid population decline, environmental concerns stemming from West Virginia’s reliance on our natural resources, [and] our public employees are being treated unfairly by the establishment.

The Huntington area has recently seen significant labor struggles. A strike by 450 metalworkers at Special Metals has been underway since October against plans to raise their healthcare premiums by more than 350%. A strike by 900 hospital workers at Cabell-Huntington Hospital ended in December when the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) agreed to increased health care costs for workers.

The attack on public education and educators in particular has sparked some of the most explosive class struggles of the past decade. West Virginia educators went on statewide strikes in 2018 and 2019 over efforts to cut public education.

The defense of democratic rights is essential for the entire working class and the students of Huntington must be defended. All students who wish to support and expand this struggle should contact IYSSE.

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