Jesus Christ Will Save You: A Message That Doesn’t Belong in a Public High School Assembly

Members of Mississippi’s Pinelake Baptist Church recently shared the message of finding hope in Jesus Christ. They even played a video to really bring home that message:

In the video, two young men were interviewed who had once led “troubled” lives. To find hope, the men described various behaviors such as turning to drugs, sex, cutting, suicide, and the like. They then explained how turning to Jesus Christ solved their problems and recommended that other people turn to Jesus Christ as well.

Sounds perfectly normal for a church gathering.

The problem is that the gathering took place at Northwest Rankin High School, a public school.

During the school day.

And the principal even made it clear all seniors had to attend the assembly.

Even when students tried to leave the Performing Arts Building so they wouldn’t have to listen to the preaching, “faculty stood near the exit door, preventing students from leaving.”

It’s about as unconstitutional as you can get.

Thankfully, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center (of the American Humanist Association) found out about it and they’re on the case (PDF):

The event promoted by this school was conducted during class-time and was mandated by the principal. It has hard to imagine a more blatant violation of the Establishment Clause than the one complained of herein. The law prohibiting this type of endorsement and coercion is well-settled. As such, not only will the school, in its official capacity, be liable for this constitutional infringement…, but the school officials responsible for the event will be personally liable too, in their individual capacities.

As of now, the AHA’s attorneys are still awaiting a reply from school administrators. Though it’s hard to see how they could possibly defend such a blatant disregard of the students’ rights.

The best thing for them to do would be to apologize and make a promise in writing that it will never happen again. If the administrators had that good sense, though, this never would have happened in the first place.

Odds are they’ll just try to justify the proselytizing and wind up with a foot in their mouth.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    Wow, I hope AHA at least attempts to get school officials charged with kidnapping for keeping anyone from leaving against their will.

    • 3lemenope

      I wish they’d have even a slight hope of winning, but unfortunately, under the law, school officials have sweeping powers in loco parentis, including restricting the movement of students under their care.

      • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

        But they don’t have the authority to keep them at an unlawful assembly. I’d still like to see what would happen.

        • 3lemenope

          The way it would almost certainly shake out is that the school has the legal ability to force them to be in the room, but is liable for the contents of the presentation itself. So, a student would still not be free to leave, but would be free to sue the school after-the-fact. This follows the general principle that persons under custody of the state may not take *primary* action to end that custody (e.g. if a cop arrests you illegally, it is nonetheless illegal for you to resist the arrest), but have civil remedies available (probably a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action or a Bivens action, depending on whether the agent was an organ of a state or of the feds).

          I agree it can’t hurt (much) to see how it would shake out in practice, since the law in this area is about as bad as it could possibly be.

          • http://twitter.com/docslacker MD

            These are seniors, so quite a few of them must be 18 and over. Would the in loco parentis concept still apply?

            • 3lemenope

              Very, very sadly, (almost definitely) yes. The rule is predicated primarily upon the school’s “need” to maintain order so that the learning environment is undisturbed, and also perversely is predicated upon the school’s presumed ability to know the interests of a student better than they themselves do; many elements of in loco parentis extend right up through college, with post-secondary institutions enjoying generally ghastly amounts of authority over resident students.

              • indorri

                In loco parentis is a massive pet peeve of mine for tangential reasons related to the troubled teen industry and the abuse that’s rampant in it. I do hope the courts become more active in curtailing its capabilities.

  • dan davis

    And the south will rise again, just like a turd that refuses to be flushed.

  • C Peterson

    It’s just Whack-a-Mole religion. No matter how many schools or districts get their hands slapped by the courts, others keep popping up. Imagine if every time somebody committed a murder, the prosecutor had to go back to square one and start by convincing the court that murder is illegal, rather than simply prosecuting the crime itself.

    A good start in blatant cases like this would be removing the offending administrator from his job. No warning, no second chance, just Whack! out of a job. This is established law being violated here; a warning is not justified.

    • Ryan Jean

      Very well put. I especially like the comparison to a prosecutor having to repeatedly convince the court of the illegality of murder.

      Of course, the chances that they’ll ever just fire on the spot over establishment clause violations is about as likely as me being made a Cardinal today at lunch…

    • JET

      I agree that a good Whack! should be the routine response to these infractions. But unfortunately we’re not there yet. What’s currently needed is a strong and courageous student in each one of these schools to file a lawsuit and for secular organizations to get behind them with money, power and support. Students like Jessica Alquist and Zack Kopplin are needed to fight from the inside for the education they deserve. Maybe if school districts and their administrators get dragged into court often enough and begin losing their time and money defending themselves they’ll stop with the blatant violations.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    “the men described various behaviors such as turning to drugs, sex, cutting, suicide”

    I know christianity’s big on life after death, but speakers who’ve actually committed suicide is new.

    • curtcameron

      He got better.

      • Randomfactor

        Took three days, though…

  • DougI

    Might as well have held them at gunpoint and forced them to accept Jesus while they take their lunch money. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t give them ideas.

  • JA

    Hardly surprising since it’s Mississippi.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    Here’s some local coverage:

    http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20130416/NEWS/304160061/Group-alleges-NW-Rankin-High-School-students-rights-violated-Christian-assembly

    The first stage: denial

    District officials deny those allegations. Rankin County School District released a statement saying the assembly was not mandatory.

    “Our students have the freedom to organize student-led and planned meetings and the assembly in question was student-led and organized,” according to the district’s statement.

    • Randomfactor

      Second stage: Well, yes, I do remember writing the e-mail you’ve submitted in evidence, but…

    • JET

      During classtime hours? Gosh, I wish I had known this when I was in high school!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001984873204 Kathleen Flick

      You need to understand something about these nitwits. At my kids’ Southern public school, they sometimes had student-led prayer. Their excuse was, the students voted on it and wanted to have a prayer. Nobody complains, because the few who would are afraid to. They’re vastly outnumbered.

  • A3Kr0n

    “faculty stood near the exit door, preventing students from leaving.”
    If I was in that school there would have been some faculty going to the hospital.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adam-Patrick/100000027906887 Adam Patrick

      Don’t give them ammo

      • 3lemenope

        I’m not generally one for violence, but forced detention (especially by persons whose authority to detain me by force I do not recognize) is one of those things where I’m not sure I wouldn’t react forcefully. If your hands are on my person and I don’t want them to be there, they won’t be for long, and what the minutiae of law says on the matter would be fairly far from my mind.

        It would be a legal error to do so, and assault charges would certainly follow in a case like this one. Sometimes, though, breaking the law is the lesser error than not redressing the immediate violation of your person.

    • guest

      Damn straight. If some teacher tried to make me stay in some religious assembly at school, that assembly would have been interrupted and heads would be rolling soon after.

    • http://twitter.com/docslacker MD

      I wouldn’t have gotten violent. I would have gotten LOUD. “You can’t endorse religion in public school!” Over and over again.

    • Goatless

      Well that depends. Were they just standing there and intimidating the kids or were they actually physically preventing them from leaving? Not that one is better than the other, but intimidation is no reason to hospitalise somebody.

      I would have gotten up and walked out. If anybody grabbed me or otherwise physically tried to stop me then yeah, I would have responded. Not to hospitalisation levels, just enough to make them let go.

      I don’t like being grabbed.

      • A3Kr0n

        “Not to hospitalisation levels” Ya, I wouldn’t have done thatt either, but I could be loud and disruptive in my youth!

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    As someone else posted a link to local coverage i would like to share that according to the school district students can apparently plan assemblies for the school

    “Our students have the freedom to organize student-led and planned meetings and the assembly in question was student-led and organized,” according to the district’s statement.”

    So, that explains partially why the schools are so bad in MS. They let students decide what will be going on. Although can’t be worse than some of the people running the school.

    • The Watcher

      So the students have the power to force other students to listen to religious propaganda? That’s somehow even worse. It’s not the school standing in loco parentis, it’s their peers.

  • nanette

    If one reads the morning email from the school administration, there was nothing stated about attendance being voluntary. Somebody SHOULD lose their job over this. But, of course, no one will.

  • guest

    Ah Mississippi, where education, logic, rational thought and freedom go to die.

  • sam

    Here’s one vote for you to stay on top of this story & future developments, Mr. Mehta. I hope these officials are held personally accountable rather than the school. As you probably know, no public school can afford extra expenses.

    • 3lemenope

      Unfortunately, school officials enjoy rather broad protections from individual liability. And while it might sound like it wouldn’t apply, the reality is that the “qualified” part of qualified immunity is something of a long-running extremely unfunny joke.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001984873204 Kathleen Flick

      Take a read on the ACLU site (iirc) about what happened in Tangipahoa Parish. They kept up the prayers, and the ACLU kept taking them to court until it bankrupted the school district. These people DON’T CARE – as long as they get to shove their religion down the kids’ throats.

  • Rob

    When will this type of thing start to be treated as criminal?

  • LesterBallard

    If it was Islam and students were prevented from leaving it’d be terrorism.

  • Bones Thompson

    They should either resign or be fired.


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