Cheney school officials have apologized to the parents of a middle school student for allowing a self-styled religious missionary to be the featured speaker at a mandatory school assembly.
Terry Fiala remains dissatisfied with the Cheney School District’s response. He wants school apologies sent to all parents and some school staff held accountable for bringing in Gary Horton last March.
“He violated my daughter’s rights, and that of all the students in the school. He’s violating state and national separation of church and state laws,” Fiala said. “I feel I have been violated because having him in a school is a validation of his opinion.”
School officials now acknowledge they made several missteps by allowing Horton to speak. They failed to fill out the appropriate paperwork, failed to research Horton thoroughly and failed to stop his speech once he began to deliver his message about God.
Training is underway to prevent such mistakes in the future, Superintendent Deb Clemens said. She sent letters to Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Association of Washington School Principals and the Washington Association of School Administrators regarding Horton, the founder of American Freedom Assembly Inc.
“Our hope is that people will learn from our experience,” Clemens said.
School officials warned Horton’s state coordinator via email before the assembly to avoid speaking about his faith. The day Horton arrived, there was no further discussion.
“We outlined what he was supposed to talk about,” said Nicole Nanny, the school’s vice principal. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance that was not intended.”
Horton has no regrets.
“Apparently the school thought I would not mention anything about what I believe and what I’d die for,” said Horton, who believes his right to freedom of speech trumps the separation of church and state. “I’m convinced after all these years that the Constitution still protects my right to stand up for what I believe.”
Horton has spoken for free in more than 8,000 schools throughout the country since 1978. This is the second time he’s been a guest speaker in the Cheney School District, he said. Horton also spoke to Othello and Warden students last school year.
“I try to be thoughtful concerning the situation, but it’s different from school to school,” he said. “My whole objective is to offer them the one thing I’m convinced can make a difference.”
Fiala found out about Horton’s speech after his daughter told him about several comments the speaker made to kids, including “If you don’t believe the holidays are motivated by Christian beliefs, you’re a coward” and referred to the children as “lambs, himself as the sheepdog and the Lord as his shepherd.”
Horton, who now lives in Alabama, wrote in his winter 2013 newsletter of his speech at Othello High School, where he stated: “How strange it was that so many people were offended by the birthday of our Savior and the problem of giving credit to the Resurrection by replacing it with rabbits and Easter egg hunts.”
Referring to Cheney School District, Horton wrote he stood on the stage and “let the Lord talk through me.”
“If I’m guilty of anything, I’m guilty of sharing things that I think can change their life,” Horton said. “It’s given me hope, strength and the ability to love. I’m here to tell young people about what’s worked for me.”
He refers to himself as “Ranger Gary Horton,” based on his four years in the Army, which included assignment to the airborne rangers.
His American Freedom Assembly website states that his expenses are paid by people who believe in his mission and share a concern for today’s youth.
Fiala not only objects to someone “proselytizing” in his daughter’s school, he thinks the principal should have seen a red flag simply by who recommended Horton. Aaron Mason, the Cheney Middle School science teacher who told administrators Horton would be in the region, was disciplined in 1996 for teaching creationism in the classroom, according to newspaper archives.
Nanny, the school’s assistant principal, said she viewed a YouTube video of Horton, “but that was the extent of it.” She didn’t see his history.
Horton spoke for 55 minutes, she said.
“We were extremely disappointed in what he did,” Nanny said. “It was certainly not what we intended in any way, shape or form.”