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Fighting for Religious Freedom in Public Schools

An incident in a West Virginia Public High School sparks conversations about students ability to express their own beliefs.

Source: CNN

Description: In this image taken from cell phone video, evangelical preacher Nik Walker, second left, talks to high school students during assembly at the Huntington High School in Huntington, West Virginia.


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE


December 2nd, 2023


By Josh Kaminski


The relationship between school and religion has continuously been challenged throughout the decades. The first Amendment of the United States's constitution proudly grants citizens the freedom of speech, which is the ability to express their thoughts without fear of retaliation. Along with this amendment, there is also the Establishment Clause, which prohibits governments from establishing a religion, and the Free Exercise Clause, which allows individuals to practice their religion as long as it does not cause harm. Public school students from all across the country have the right to present personal religious symbols such as crosses and hijabs, and they have the ability to participate in religious after school groups as long as they are not teacher sponsored. However, all of these protections aren't always enough to prevent public schools from stepping on a student's religious rights.

In February of 2022, a high school in West Virginia hosted an assembly that sparked outrage from both students and parents. Teachers from Huntington High School led their students to a school sponsored assembly hosted by a Catholic pastor named Nik Walker. According to the students, Walker instructed every participant to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer. He then warned the students about the consequences of being unfaithful to God, stating things along the lines of "those who do not follow the bible will face eternal torment.” Finally, the pastor encouraged the students to attend his church, and explained to them why getting baptized would be beneficial. All throughout this event, the teachers were complacent with Walker's requests and forced every student to go along with his Christian practices. One Jewish student even asked their teacher if they could leave, but the teacher made them stay and participate in a religion that they did not wish to be affiliated with.


This blatant injustice to the rights granted by the first amendment was heavily challenged by the students, the parents, the school system and even the law. Shortly after the assembly, the students of Huntington High School hosted a walkout in which they paraded signs stating things along the lines of “my faith, my choice.” Along with this, a group of parents sued the school district with the help of the Freedom of Religion Foundation. During the lawsuit, it was revealed that the school district has had a long history of situations regarding violations of religious freedom. A little over a year and a half after this incident, the school finally adjusted its system in order to prevent a situation like this from happening again. Their solution was to refine the religious freedom training they already had in place, making the wording more specific and defining exactly what constitutes a violation to their code of conduct. The school board and families associated with the school are hopeful that from now forward, no unconstitutional mistake regarding religion will take place at Huntington High School ever again.


Freedom of religion within school walls is still being fought for all across the United States of America. This incident in West Virginia is just one small example of how public school systems still try to impose a specific ideology onto their students, ignoring their freedom of speech. Students have a guaranteed right to express their own religion without fear of backlash or forced conversion, and any attack on this right can be challenged by the law. It is very important for teenagers to be aware of their rights in public high schools, so that they know they can speak up against the system’s wrongdoings. In a society where basic rights are still being disobeyed, the people's ability to take a stand is something that is not only protected but also necessary in order to make real change. Just like the situation in West Virginia, these violations can be prevented and systems can be put into order when people fight for what is guaranteed to them as US civilians .


Director of the Media Relations Team at Teens for Press Freedom, Fabiha Khanam, asserts how, “The biases of religion and its assertions have occurred throughout our lives. As we say the pledge of allegiance in elementary school, students are asked to show faith to a God that they may not resonate with. Our language in saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” also asserts the bias of religion. No matter how big or small the religious prejudice is, it should be acknowledged and held accountable. It is our first amendment right to choose which religion to follow and how. When faced with injustice in religious freedom, civilians have the authority and right to fight against it”.



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