Cranford, NJ—Principal J. Wayne Shepherd of the West Wilkes High School in Wilkes, North Carolina, has agreed to review the restrictions about religious activities at the public high school and the policy of distribution of non-school sponsored literature to students after American Atheists sent a letter of concern about a religious assembly held on October 15 at the school. Many students were forced to attend the assembly instead of their regular classes.
American Atheists, headquartered in New Jersey, is a national atheist civil rights organization that advocates for the constitutional principle of the separation of religion and government. The nonprofit has six affiliate groups in North Carolina, including one in nearby Hickory.
The assembly featured Otis Duhart, a former Florida State Seminoles football player and evangelist, who spoke to the students about his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s suicide, and called all of the students “sinners.” The 30-plus minute sermon included Duhart raising his voice loudly at the students and telling them to accept the salvation of Christ. At the end of the sermon, Duhart led the students in prayer. Duhart then distributed flyers to the students inviting them to a religious youth rally at a local church on October 18.
“Mr. Duhart’s presentation amounted to a church service during class time,” said Amanda Knief, American Atheists’ managing director and in-house counsel. “He evangelized to a captive audience and there was no educational purpose for the presentation other than to promote Christianity. It was a clear violation of the Establishment Clause for the school to sponsor Mr. Duhart’s presentation.”
American Atheists’ letter of concern cited numerous U.S. Supreme Court cases that have explicity forbidden public schools from interfering with the constitutional rights of students’ rights of conscience regarding religion.
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said, “Religion is a contentious issue in this country. But one thing that should not be controversial is that religious indoctrination of any kind has no place in our public schools.”
American Atheists will be following up with the school to ensure that after the policies are reviewed they will protect all students’ constitutional rights.
AMERICAN ATHEISTS is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that defends civil rights for atheists, freethinkers, and other nonbelievers; works for the total separation of religion and government; and addresses issues of First Amendment public policy. American Atheists was founded in 1963 by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
The American Atheists 2015 National Convention will take place April 2-5 in Memphis, Tennessee at the Peabody Hotel. The convention will feature keynote speaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a costume party, an art show, a “Cards Against Humanity” charity tournament, workshops, talks by more than 20 of the atheist community’s greatest speakers, and more.
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