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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.

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Today, Fee, who hosts a nondenominational church service in her home on weekends, is adviser to both the Seekers and the Muslim Student Association (MSA).

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On two separate days, leaders of the MSA and Seekers agreed to meet with the Monitor. About half a dozen in each group gathered at a large table in Fee's office. Both clubs number 50 to 60 members, out of a student body of about 1,100. Some members are more religious than their parents; others don't have a youth group at their mosque or church. All, they say, feel it is key to have peers who share their school life and values. Besides providing a source of friendship, the clubs allow them to wrestle with how to live their faith where they spend most of their day.

The Muslim students, for example, talk about what it means for girls to wear head scarves – about half the MSA girls here do; the Christians struggle with how to evangelize without being obnoxious or coming across as superior. Both groups report discussing "sensitive issues" like dating pressures or views about homosexuality. These are the kinds of conversations Nabeel Hussain hankered for when he helped launch an MSA at Fishers High School in Fishers, Ind., last year. He wanted to make sure he could perform his prayers, but he also wanted the support of fellow Muslims to help him stay true to his faith in the face of pressures from peers and the culture at large.

Battling for students' souls

"I have no problem whatsoever if Muslims or Christians come together to practice their faith," says Melissa Thompson, a Christian and mother of a student at Blaine (Minn.) High School. "That is their right."

But Ms. Thompson wants the school to rein in members of the Christian club Catalyst. She says they've harassed her daughter with repeated, insistent invitations, even though she "had made it crystal clear for over a year that she had no interest in their group. They have an elaborate manual that tells them what their job is ... to go out and proselytize their peers."

Indeed, the group's manuals – available on-line at, a coalition of Catalyst clubs – preach in hip, lower-case language that "taking the message of Jesus to the world around you isn't a hobby. it's a LIFE style. that's because it's not the great suggestion. it's the great commission ... there are so many opportunities in public schools to represent Jesus. don't be ashamed. if Jesus doesn't reject you, no one can."

Other organizations' materials and websites get downright militaristic. References to public schools as "a target" or "battlefield" are not uncommon. One website tells of the need "to be warriors in an eternal battle for the souls of these children and their parents," while a 2002 National Network of Youth Ministries (NNYM) manual states that Christian students "have been sent to establish a strategic beachhead so that they can penetrate and saturate the entire school with the good news of Jesus Christ."

Some NNYM leaders now counsel a far less aggressive approach, but the manual lives on and Thompson sees many parallels between its call to arms and Catalyst's actions at Blaine.

Thompson says she believes that a local youth pastor, who contributed to the 2002 manual, directs Catalyst members from afar, thereby violating the Equal Access Act. Though the Anoka-Hennepin School District did not side with Thompson, she is determined to fight on.

The controversy surrounding Catalyst illustrates a broader point: Students' outside lives and worldviews follow them on campus.

Haynes, the First Amendment scholar who has written guidelines on religion and public education, points out that there is nothing unconstitutional about students following the advice of a mentor outside school.


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