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School prayer: 50 years after the ban, God and faith more present than ever

School prayer was banned by the US Supreme Court 50 years ago, but there is probably more presence of religion in public school environments – through club ministries, classes, after-school and interfaith programs, and faith-based services – than ever.

By Lee LawrenceCorrespondent / June 16, 2013

This article is part of the three-part cover story on prayer in school in the June 17, 2013 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly magazine. Youth members of the Church of the Living God hold a prayer vigil at Nandua High School in Onley, Va.

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Atlanta

At the adolescent-unfriendly hour of 7:10 on this rainy spring morning in tiny Loachapoka, Ala., classes won't start for another half hour in the public school. But already the science lab at Loachapoka High School is coming alive with the banter of 13 teens sloughing off backpacks and settling in to learn – not about chemistry or biology, but about faith.

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"Who knows what happened this weekend?" asks Kevin Flannagan, regional director for Campus Life ministry.

Immediately, the teens quiet down to listen. "Easter," a boy volunteers.

"Jesus rose, yes," Mr. Flannagan says. Then, in a tone as gentle as it is friendly, he recaps the Bible story and asks, "So why is it called Good Friday?"

A girl answers: "Because he died for us, and that's a good thing." A few heads nod.

As Flannagan goes on to tell the story of a boy making an empty Easter egg – "he got it that the meaning of Easter is the empty tomb" – the emotional climate in the room is not one of fervor, but of comfort.

Asked why it's worth coming to school early for a Campus Life meeting, a lanky senior wearing an Adidas shirt answers simply: "I like to learn about Jesus."

It has been 50 years since the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer. But God and faith are probably present in more ways now than ever in public schools, say law and religion experts and activists.

"We've gone from virtual silence about religion in the curriculum and virtually no student religious expression in many schools," says Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center and head of the Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, D.C., "to today, when social studies and other standards are fairly generous to religion, and students are expressing their faiths in many different ways in many public schools, if not most."

Nobody has yet studied the phenomenon, but there are some illustrative examples:

Student ministries that started before the school prayer ban, or just after, have expanded to reach tens of thousands of public school students. Since the mid-1960s, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes has established itself on more than 8,000 junior and high school campuses, many of them public. And Campus Crusade for Christ, founded in 1951 as a Christian ministry to college students in California and now known as Cru, has helped high school students start some 200 Christian clubs, almost all of them in public schools. Youth for Christ, an evangelical missionary organization in which broadcast-evangelist Billy Graham worked in the 1940s, began reaching out to high school and middle school students in the 1960s and '70s. It now has on- and off-campus clubs at 1,200 schools, most of them public.

At the elementary school level, religious instruction sometimes takes place right on campus in after-school programs. By far the most widespread and controversial, Good News Clubs hold Sunday school-like classes in some 3,200 public elementary schools. After-school Good News Clubs have grown from fewer than 17,000 participants in 2001 to more than 156,000 enrolled in 2012.

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