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Alabama school district faces controversy over alleged religious assembly

Parents reported that a seminar turned into a Christian proselytizing session.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation seeks to enforce the separation of church and state.
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In an unfolding controversy, an Alabama school district is under scrutiny after an evangelist’s social media boast about his “talk about Jesus” and “hundreds of teenagers… receiv[ing] prayer” during a high school assembly. Despite these claims, the district insists it was “not a religious assembly,” drawing criticism from a state/church watchdog group.

Earlier this month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to the Elmore County School District, alleging that the principal of Stanhope Elmore High School in Millbrook had inappropriately permitted a religious assembly.

According to multiple district parents, Recovery ALIVE Founder/CEO John Eklund was invited to deliver what was billed as a mandatory “mental health” seminar. However, parents reported that the seminar turned into a Christian proselytizing session. Recovery ALIVE is a Christian 12-step program that emphasizes “the Power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit to raise Hope From The Dead,” and aims to integrate the teachings of Jesus Christ into its recovery process.

In response to FFRF’s letter, Superintendent Richard Dennis claimed that the assembly was not mandatory and denied it was a religious event. He stated that the assembly’s primary purpose was to provide students with tools to manage anxiety and emotional difficulties, emphasizing that Mr. Eklund’s address focused on encouraging students to seek help for mental health issues, not religion.

However, Eklund’s Facebook post paints a different picture. He shared photos of students gathered in prayer and admitted he spoke about Jesus during the assembly. Eklund mentioned in his post that he praised Principal Fuller for allowing them to discuss Jesus and Recovery in a public high school. Eklund quoted Fuller saying, “If I’m gonna get in trouble, it might as well be for Jesus!” The post also highlighted that during two assemblies, numerous teenagers came forward for prayer and thanked Shoal Creek Baptist Church for supporting the event.

FFRF’s complainants, including two parents, reported that Eklund told students Jesus Christ could redeem them, offered money to those who came forward for prayer, and distributed pamphlets for Shoal Creek Baptist Church. These actions, they argued, clearly demonstrated the religious nature of the assembly.

Despite the superintendent’s assurance that faculty and staff would be reminded of students’ rights, FFRF is concerned that the district’s denial could lead to further religious assemblies targeting students. FFRF, along with local parents, plans to monitor the district closely to prevent any recurrence of this unconstitutional activity. The organization recently settled a lawsuit with a West Virginia school district over a similar incident, resulting in a settlement of nearly $175,000 in attorney fees.

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“We’re calling on the district to stop gaslighting the situation and adopt clear policy disallowing religious assemblies masquerading as secular seminars,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Elmore School District must take action to protect its students from preying (and praying) evangelists.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members, including hundreds in Alabama. Its mission is to uphold the constitutional separation of state and church and educate the public on matters of nontheism.

You can read FFRF’s original letter here.

The Alabama Political Reporter is a daily political news site devoted to Alabama politics. We provide accurate, reliable coverage of policy, elections and government.

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