Does prayer belong in public schools?
Just over a week ago, the House of Representatives said no - barely. In its first vote on school prayer in 27 years, the House narrowly rejected a proposal for a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in schools and religious displays in federal buildings.
But amid all the adult sparring over establishment of religion and freedom of speech, one point seems to have been lost: Lots of students around the United States are already praying while on school grounds - and they're doing it legally.
In the early morning, at lunch, or after the last bell rings, thousands of high school classrooms host gatherings of kids of varying faiths. There, sandwiched in between jobs, team practices, and homework, students congregate to pray about everything from upcoming tests to how to keep their school safe.
It's a phenomenon that may puzzle, anger, or thrill many of their parents, most of whom came of age in schools governed by the 1963 Supreme Court ruling that banned compulsory prayer in public schools and, for practical purposes, forbade religious activities while at school.
But the 1984 Equal Access Act is shaping a younger generation in an equally profound way. By 1990, when the act was upheld by the Supreme Court, federally funded schools were told they had to allow religious meetings if they also hosted other clubs not related to the curriculum. To skirt concerns about impositions on nonparticipants, it stipulated that prayer clubs be voluntary, student-led, and held outside class hours.
Since then, prayer clubs have become a hot ticket. First Priority, a Southern Baptist organization in Tennessee, has helped form clubs in 3,000 schools. Challenge 2000 Alliance, a group of Christian youth organizations, says there are more than 10,000 student-run Christian clubs in US high schools. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes has seen prayer "huddles" jump from about 3,400 in 1990 to about 6,500 today.
The rapid proliferation of groups, most of which are Christian, raises some concerns. Students of other faiths may feel left out or pressured to join in. The act's demand that clubs be student-run needs close monitoring to prevent adult manipulation. School officials also need to ensure that club members promote their activities in a way that doesn't offend others.
But in schools where clubs of different faiths operate, students can learn to coexist, to be sensitive to different points of view while still strengthening their own spiritual and moral values. Kids can see that faith doesn't have to be put on the bookshelf while at school, but can be a useful tool in times of need.
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