As part of the settlement, Cabell County Schools will require its teachers to attend religious freedom training sessions.
A West Virginia school district has reached an out-of-court agreement with four families who filed a lawsuit claiming that local policies violated their First Amendment rights to religious freedom.
According to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the complaint alleged that, in February of 2022, two teachers led their entire homeroom class to a sermon led by a revivalist preacher. The event was hosted by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
However, the sermon was hosted inside of school, during school hours—and students who asked to leave were not given permission to depart, despite the event being characterized as non-compulsory.
In a video recorded by a student forced to attend the sermon, a pastor—Nic Walker—can be seen railing about divine punishment.
“You will there in that place, apart from God,” Walker said. “And you will remember this service, you’ll remember this moment, you’ll remember this opportunity, where you had this chance, you had to get right.”
“And you’ll be tormented with this memory,” he said. “Over and over, and over, and over, and it never ends—like it’s eternity.”
As part of the settlement, the Cabell County Board of Education agreed to enact significant policy changes to prevent the recurrence of any other First Amendment violations.
The Board also said that it would require its staff to receive religious freedom training.
“The Board of Education has adopted an additional policy which provides for further training to Board of Education employees to remind them that the Board of Education and its employees must remain neutral as it pertains to issues of religion, prayer, and religious worship,” a Cabell County Schools official said in a statement. “The Board of Education has implemented the foregoing policy to safeguard against the occurrence of similar instances in the future.”
The plaintiff families, writes West Virginia Public Broadcasting, were represented by attorneys from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Patrick Elliott, an F.R.F. attorney, said that, while Cabell County Schools had First Amendment protections in place, it routinely flouted its own rules. The February event was not the first time that an overtly religious event had bene hosted on-campus, nor was it the first event students were coerced into attending.
“I think the good news is, you know, because of how egregious this was, I think people paid attention, and said we can’t allow this in our school,” Elliott told W.V.P.B. “I think that was a huge benefit to trying to stop it before it was going into all schools in the state.”
Herman Mays, the father of one of the students involved in the lawsuit, said that the settlement appears to have—at the very least—brought about “meaningful policy changes and enforcement and training for staff and teachers on their constitutional responsibilities to ensure that what happened in Cabell public schools in February 2022 will never occur again.”
The settlement will also provide a small token payment to families in the district, as well as the repayment of approximately $175,000 in attorneys fees. Additionally, each student-plaintiff will receive $2,000 scholarships from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.