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.
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But she knows the law, she says, and "I know how far I can go." She restricts attendance to high school students and makes it strictly voluntary. In the absence of other student clubs, anyone not participating can use club time for study hall. Though all high school students currently participate in Campus Life, Sullen says, a few students in the past have bowed out.Skip to next paragraph
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This suggests Campus Life is a religious club. But because Flannagan attends and conducts virtually every meeting, it could fall under rules for outside-led, after-school programs. As with Hull Middle School, the situation is not clear-cut and will remain so unless there is a complaint.
The religious 'huddle'
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) is arguably the largest religious organization with a public school presence. Jeff Martin, executive vice president of ministry programs and resources, describes its "huddles" as student-led clubs with, ideally, coaches as faculty sponsors. A former college football player with a master's of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, he says the sponsors' influence is confined to a "ministry of presence, a ministry of attitude."
But anecdotal evidence suggests that policy can be one thing, implementation another.
When the huddle meets on Friday mornings at 6:30 at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Ga., Alex Durham, a senior and FCA leader, is a stickler for the rules. The faculty sponsor "sits at the back," she says.
In other schools, however, the athletic department can be "somewhat semiautonomous," says Bruce Grelle, director of the Religion and Public Education Resource Center at California State University, Chico. When his students recall their high school days, he says, some note: "Oh, yeah, the coaches and the team, they always prayed together before the game." Some, he speculates, don't realize this is illegal while others "do realize it and say, 'Well, we're going to keep doing it this way until you want to make an issue of it.' "
A student athlete at Lakeside High School in Atlanta did just that a few years ago. A teacher scolded him for "being disrespectful" when he didn't bow his head in prayer at a team huddle, says Chaim Neiditch, a rabbi with the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. "The boy called me the next day."
The school website now says, "FCA was originally started by Christian athletes as a safe place where students could come meet with fellow Christians," but is now "very welcoming to all."
The website also now lists a Jewish Student Union that meets every other week before school with Mr. Neiditch, a guest as regular here as Flannagan is in Alabama schools. At a recent meeting, student leaders announced an ice-cream seder at Sara's house – "again!" – and begged their buddies to sing at a school-wide event. The 20-some students laugh; the faculty adviser smiles from her desk. Sometimes conversation turns to world events, and they ask Neiditch for the Israeli perspective.
This day, though, they dig into 30 pounds of challah dough. While the kids – most, not all, Jewish – roll and braid, the rabbi relates, locomotive-fast, the story of the Exodus, with the Red Sea parting and manna from heaven: "This reminds us that as we go through challenges God loves us and there is a reason for those challenges."
"You realize there's a lot more you can do to experience your Judaism," says sophomore Adam David. "It's scary here, so it's nice to have a small intimate group," he adds. He's referring to the fact that in Georgia, as Neiditch puts it, "everything is Gospel," whether spinning the dial on the radio, holiday shopping, or spotting church after church out the car window.
In Flushing, N.Y., a group of Christian students tried for years to meet at Townsend Harris High School, but the administration was adamant: no religious activity on campus. When a new principal took over, the group – the Seekers – tried again, asking assistant principal and fellow Christian Ellen Fee to be faculty sponsor. Some teachers worried that a religious club "would create a lot of 'us versus them,' " recalls Ms. Fee, who also teaches health and physical education. Others felt that "if kids are asking, then we have an obligation to them."