School prayer was banned by the Supreme Court 50 years ago this month. This photo, taken three years after the ruling, show first-graders in silent prayer in public school in South Carolina where the "prayer issue" was still left to teachers' discretion.

School prayer: After-school Good News Club is 'Sunday school on steroids'

The school prayer ban is 50 years old this month. Yet there's more religion on campus than ever. The after-school Good News Club, for example, brings the fourth R  –  religion –  that follows a day of reading, writing, and arithmetic at 3,200 public schools.

Once a week, Sanders Elementary School reverberates with religious music and the sound of excited children vying for prizes. After a day of reading, writing, and arithmetic, 30 public school students have gone on to their next class: "Sunday school on steroids," as Lin Harrison describes it.

This is one of more than 4,000 after-school Good News Club programs in 3,200 public elementary schools nationwide; Mr. Harrison, associate pastor at nearby Orange Hill Baptist Church, is one of some 25,000 GNC volunteer teachers.

Supporters hail the GNC for giving children a message of hope and a moral keel. Children can only attend, they point out, with written parental permission. Critics denounce the GNC for inculcating a conservative and highly judgmental interpretation of Christianity in young, malleable minds.

Many of the arguments echo the deliberations of the Supreme Court when, in 2001, it ruled that a school hosting secular after-school programs must allow GNC entry. While the court decided 8 to 1 against school-sponsored prayer, this decision proved more contentious: The GNC free speech ruling passed 6 to 3.

The decision fueled GNC's phenomenal reach, from 17,000 children in 2001 to 156,000 today.

At issue are the content of GNC teachings and its target audience. The GNC, part of the Missouri-based Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), uses a curriculum based on a literal reading of the Bible geared toward young children.

Eric Cernyar is a Colorado patent lawyer who assisted with GNC's legal cases and now denounces its teachings as "emphasizing man's sinful nature, how bad and worthless and deserving of death and punishment we are." The aftereffects, he says, can be shame at the onset of adolescent sexual desire. Add to that "some kind of a failure, and the idea that 'I deserve to die' can percolate up. That happened to me." Now an atheist, he is establishing Intrinsic Dignity, a nonprofit offering school boards model policies he hopes can block GNC access to schools.

"We realize that the message [of sin and redemption] can be somewhat overwhelming," says GNC's Harrison, who appears genuinely pained by Mr. Cernyar's story. "But at the same time we present the other side of it: God loves you ... you can lean on Him in times of trouble." If a kid is being hard on himself, he adds, "we go, 'No, no. Just ask for forgiveness and then trust' " in God's love and forgiveness.

Moises Esteves, CEF vice president for USA Ministries, says that GNC teachers model loving acceptance toward believers and nonbelievers alike – and spending time with Harrison, it is easy to believe he does. But, Mr. Esteves says, "we are born-again believers" and "the message itself – not the person, but the message – begins to be divisive. Do I change it, make it palatable to everybody and in a sense distance myself from the teaching of the Scriptures? My answer to that is no."

This raises the issue of the appropriateness of holding evangelistic programs in elementary schools. Katherine Stewart, author of "The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children," maintains that GNC uses "the public school's cloak of authority. Young children can't make a distinction between what happens in their school and what's sponsored by their school. I have a 6-year-old. He believes in the tooth fairy. He'll do anything for a cupcake."

Esteves sees this as a ploy to silence his religious point of view. Manipulating a confession of faith would be counterproductive, he argues, and children can only attend with parental consent: "When they read the name of the organization it does not take a rocket scientist to see we are about evangelizing children."

Disagreement on this extends to other religious groups. Leaders in Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) and Youth Alive say they are thinking of extending their activities to elementary schools. The Jewish Student Union, an Orthodox organization, will not, says director Micah Greenland. "In younger years," he says "children don't have the independence to make decisions for themselves. It is a scary time to try to influence their thinking."

The only thing supporters and critics of the GNC seem to agree on is whether parents should visit the club. Esteves invites them in; Ms. Stewart urges them to attend.

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