By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN
Samuel Felinton shuffled into his high school auditorium last week for what his teacher told him was a mandatory assembly. Little did he know, the guest speaker was an evangelical preacher holding a Christian revival assembly.
Despite asking, Felinton, who is Jewish, says he wasn’t allowed to be excused from it.
On February 2, students involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a non-profit Christian sports ministry, conducted an assembly during a non-instructional homeroom period at Huntington High School in Huntington, West Virginia, Cabell County Schools spokesperson Jedd Flowers told CNN in a statement.
During the meeting, Felinton says Nik Walker, an evangelical preacher, instructed the auditorium to close their eyes, raise their arms in prayer to give their lives over to Jesus for purpose and salvation. Those who didn’t follow the Bible, he said, would go to hell when they died.
“There were moments where most of the people, or most of the kids and administrators are standing up putting their hands up and praying,” Felinton said. “And me and this little group of people did nothing. I felt we were definitely stared at and felt like the minority there too.”
Walker, a traveling evangelist minister based in Cleveland, Tennessee, has been visiting with other schools in the area, according to his social media.
“We just got back from Boyd County High School and Huntington High School where right at 50 students gave their lives to Jesus at their voluntary club meetings!,” he wrote on Feb. 2. “I expect to see these students and many others TONIGHT for the final service of the week at Christ Temple Church! Don’t miss this incredible night of revival.”
CNN has made several attempts to reach Nik Walker but has not heard back.
In a statement to CNN affiliate WCHS, Walker said: “My vision as a minister, whether in a church or a school, is to bring hope to a generation. So many things have been taken from our young people and the people of West Virginia, and it creates hopelessness.”
Walker also told WCHS in a statement that his events are always voluntary and student-led.
Schools says attendance was voluntary, students say otherwise
On the day of the assembly, Felinton asked his teacher for permission to leave but says he was denied that opportunity.
“Student attendance was voluntary, and there was a signup process in place prior to the event so teachers would know what students had requested to attend,” said Flowers, the Cabell County Schools spokesperson.
Felinton, however, says his teacher left he and his peers no choice about attending and offered no details on what the assembly was about prior to them walking into the auditorium.
“Two teachers mistakenly took their entire class to the assembly,” Flowers said. “Those teachers have been corrected and the district does not anticipate a similar issue in the future.”
Flowers would not comment on what, if any, disciplinary action has been taken against the two teachers, how many students attended the assembly. He did not elaborate on what the school and district is doing to ensure an incident like this doesn’t happen again.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes told CNN in a statement they welcome all to participate in FCA activities and events.
“One way that FCA shows all individuals respect is by welcoming all people to FCA events on a voluntary basis. Coaches, athletes and students are free to choose or deny participation in any FCA event,” the organization said.
Bethany Felinton, Samuel’s mom, told CNN she was shocked when he texted her last week about the assembly.
“And then that shock turned into anger,” she said. “Because we send our children to Cabell County Schools, and we trust them and then this happens and my child’s asked not to be part of it, and was still forced to do that.”
Cameron Mays also attended the assembly and texted his dad Herman from the event. He was confused about the legality of holding a religious presentation at the school.
“Stan Lee and Spider-Man wrote this thing that you might think is very silly today but it’s so true…school districts have great power, and with that great power comes great responsibility and they have constitutional responsibilities to protect the rights of all their students, not just some that have beliefs that they happen to agree with,” Herman told CNN.
Herman says he wrote a letter to Huntington High School’s principal to express his concern, but he isn’t satisfied with the response he received.
“There has been virtually no information regarding whatever investigation they ostensibly said they were going to do,” Herman said. “In fact, several days later other parents received an almost identical email.”
‘A blatant violation of our rights’
Max Nibert, a senior at Huntington High School, didn’t attend the assembly but felt a collective sentiment with his peers who were made uncomfortable by it. He organized a walkout Wednesday in an attempt to get administrators to hear students’ concerns.
“These are kids that don’t feel comfortable attending this, you know, kids that might be part of the LGBTQ community, or might be non- Christian or non religious as a whole, and they were made to go,” he said.
“And I, personally, as a student…it’s not even about that, but as a non-Christian person myself, that’s just unacceptable. It’s a blatant violation of our rights as of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” he said, referring to the clause that prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion.
American Civil Liberties Union West Virginia said they are monitoring the situation at Huntington High School.
“What happened at Huntington High School was a very clear violation of both the United States and the West Virginia constitutions,” ACLU West Virginia Legal Director Loree Stark told CNN in a statement. “Unfortunately, it was far from a one-off incident. This is a systemic issue in West Virginia, where proselytizing often occurs in public schools.”
“The Huntington High administration must understand that students being compelled to attend is not the only issue,” the wrote. “This Christian revival should not have occurred on public school grounds during school hours in the first place.”
“The reason we walked out in the first place was because the response from the board was entirely dissatisfactory,” Nibert said. “That is just not good enough for the magnitude of what happened and the impact, to be as substantial as it was, serious actions need to be taken to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
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