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Spiriting Prayer Into School

Politicians may bicker about bringing back prayer, but in fact it's already a major presence--thanks to the many after-school prayer clubs

By David Van Biema

TIME magazine

(TIME, April 27) -- On an overcast afternoon, in a modest room in Minneapolis, 23 teenagers are in earnest conversation with one another--and with the Lord. "Would you pray for my brother so that he can raise money to go [on a preaching trip] to Mexico?" asks a young woman. "Our church group is visiting juvenile-detention centers, and some are scared to go," explains a boy. "Pray that God will lay a burden on people's hearts for this."

"Pray for the food drive," says someone.

"There's one teacher goin' psycho because kids are not turning in their homework and stuff. She's thinking of quitting, and she's a real good teacher."

"We need to pray for all the teachers in the school who aren't Christians," comes a voice from the back.

And they do. Clad in wristbands that read W.W.J.D. ("What Would Jesus Do?") and T shirts that declare UPON THIS ROCK I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH, the kids sing Christian songs, discuss Scripture and work to memorize the week's Bible verse, John 15: 5 ("I am the vine and you are the branches"). Hours pass. As night falls, the group enjoys one last mass hug and finally leaves its makeshift chapel--room 133 of Patrick Henry High School. Yes, a public high school. If you are between ages 25 and 45, your school days were not like this. In 1963 the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling banning compulsory prayer in public schools. After that, any worship on school premises, let alone a prayer club, was widely understood as forbidden. But for the past few years, thanks to a subsequent court case, such groups not only have been legal but have become legion.

The clubs' explosive spread coincides with a more radical but so far less successful movement for a complete overturn of the 1963 ruling. On the federal level is the Religious Freedom amendment, a constitutional revision proposed by House Republican Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, which would reinstate full-scale school prayer. It passed the Judiciary Committee, 16 to 11, last month but will probably fare less well when the full House votes in May. One of many local battlefields is Alabama, where last week the state senate passed a bill mandating a daily moment of silence--a response to a 1997 federal ruling voiding an earlier state pro-school prayer law. Governor Fob James is expected to sign the bill into law, triggering the inevitable church-state court challenge.

But members of prayer clubs like the one at Patrick Henry High aren't waiting for the conclusion of such epic struggles. They have already brought worship back to public school campuses, although with some state-imposed limitations. Available statistics are approximate, but they suggest that there are clubs in as many as 1 out of every 4 public schools in the country. In some areas the tally is much higher: evangelicals in Minneapolis-St. Paul claim that the vast majority of high schools in the Twin Cities region have a Christian group. Says Benny Proffitt, a Southern Baptist youth-club planter: "We had no idea in the early '90s that the response would be so great. We believe that if we are to see America's young people come to Christ and America turn around, it's going to happen through our schools, not our churches." Once a religious scorched-earth zone, the schoolyard is suddenly fertile ground for both Vine and Branches.

The turnabout culminates a quarter-century of legislative and legal maneuvering. The 1963 Supreme Court decision and its broad-brush enforcement by school administrators infuriated conservative Christians, who gradually developed enough clout to force Congress to make a change. The resulting Equal Access Act of 1984 required any federally funded secondary school to permit religious meetings if the schools allowed other clubs not related to curriculum, such as public-service Key Clubs. The crucial rule was that the prayer clubs had to be voluntary, student-run and not convened during class time.

Early drafts of the act were specifically pro-Christian. Ultimately, however, its argument was stated in pure civil-libertarian terms: prayers that would be coercive if required of all students during class are protected free speech if they are just one more after-school activity. Nevertheless, recalls Marc Stern, a staff lawyer with the American Jewish Congress, "there was great fear that this would serve as the base for very intrusive and aggressive proselytizing." Accordingly, Stern's group and other organizations challenged the law--only to see it sustained, 8 to 1, by the Supreme Court in 1990. Bill Clinton apparently agreed with the court. The President remains opposed to compulsory school prayer. But in a July 1995 speech he announced that "nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones or requires all religious expression to be left at the schoolhouse door." A month later Clinton had the Department of Education issue a memo to public school superintendents that appeared to expand Equal Access Act protections to include public-address announcements of religious gatherings and meetings at lunchtime and recess.

Evangelicals had already seized the moment. Within a year of the 1990 court decision, prayer clubs bloomed spontaneously on a thousand high school campuses. Fast on their heels came adult organizations dedicated to encouraging more. Proffitt's Tennessee-based organization, First Priority, founded in 1995, coordinates interchurch groups in 162 cities working with clubs in 3,000 schools. The San Diego-based National Network of Youth Ministries has launched "Challenge 2000," which pledges to bring the Christian gospel "to every kid on every secondary campus in every community in our nation by the year 2000." It also promotes a phenomenon called "See You at the Pole," encouraging Christian students countrywide to gather around their school flagpoles on the third Wednesday of each September; last year, 3 million students participated. Adult groups provide club handbooks, workshops for student leaders and ongoing advice. Network of Youth Ministries leader Paul Fleischmann stresses that the resulting clubs are "adult supported," not adult-run. "If we went away," he says, "they'd still do it."

The club at Patrick Henry High certainly would. The group was founded two years ago with encouragement but no specific stage managing by local youth pastors. This afternoon its faculty adviser, a math teacher and Evangelical Free Church member named Sara Van Der Werf, sits silently for most of the meeting, although she takes part in the final embrace. The club serves as an emotional bulwark for members dealing with life at a school where two students died last year in off-campus gunfire. Today a club member requests prayer for "those people who got in that big fight [this morning]." Another asks the Lord to "bless the racial-reconciliation stuff." (Patrick Henry is multiethnic; the prayer club is overwhelmingly white.) Just before Easter the group experienced its first First Amendment conflict: whether it could hang posters on all school walls like other non-school-sponsored clubs. Patrick Henry principal Paul McMahan eventually decreed that putting up posters is off limits to everyone, leading to some resentment against the Christians. Nonetheless, McMahan lauds them for "understanding the boundaries" between church and state.

In Alabama, the new school-prayer bill attempts to skirt those boundaries. The legislation requires "a brief period of quiet reflection for not more than 60 seconds with the participation of each pupil in the classroom." Although the courts have upheld some moment-of-silence policies, civil libertarians say they have struck down laws featuring pro-prayer supporting language of the sort they discern in Alabama's bill. In the eyes of many church-club planters, such fracases amount to wasted effort. Says Doug Clark, field director of the National Network of Youth Ministries: "Our energy is being poured into what kids can do voluntarily and on their own. That seems to us to be where God is working."

Reaction to the prayer clubs may depend on which besieged minority one feels part of. In the many areas where Conservative Christians feel looked down on, they welcome the emotional support for their children's faith. Similarly, non-Christians in the Bible Belt may be put off by the clubs' evangelical fervor; members of the chess society, after all, do not inform peers that they must push pawns or risk eternal damnation. Not everyone shares the enthusiasm Proffitt recently expressed at a youth rally in Niagara Falls, N.Y.: "When an awakening takes place, we see 50, 100, 1,000, 10,000 come to Christ. Can you imagine 100, or 300, come to Christ in your school? We want to see our campuses come to Christ." Watchdog organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State report cases in which such zeal has approached harassment of students and teachers, student prayer leaders have seemed mere puppets for adult evangelists, and activists have tried to establish prayer clubs in elementary schools, where the description "student-run" seems disingenuous.

Nevertheless, the Jewish committee's Stern concedes that "there's been much less controversy than one might have expected from the hysterical predictions we made." Americans United director Barry Lynn notes that "in most school districts, students are spontaneously forming clubs and acting upon their own and not outsiders' religious agendas." A.C.L.U. lobbyist Terri Schroeder also supports the Equal Access Act, pointing out that the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause protecting religious expression is as vital as its Establishment Clause, which prohibits government from promoting a creed. The civil libertarians' acceptance of the clubs owes something to their use as a defense against what they consider a truly bad idea: Istook's school-prayer amendment. Says Lynn: "Most reasonable people say, 'If so many kids are praying legally in the public schools now, why would you possibly want to amend the Constitution?'"

For now, the prospects for prayer clubs seem unlimited. In fact, the tragic shooting of eight prayer-club members last December in West Paducah, Ky., by 14-year-old Michael Carneal provided the cause with martyrs and produced a hero in prayer-club president Ben Strong, who persuaded Carneal to lay down his gun. Strong recalls that the club's daily meetings used to draw only 35 to 60 students out of Heath High School's 600. "People didn't really look down on us, but I don't know if it was cool to be a Christian," he says. Now 100 to 150 teens attend. Strong has since toured three states extolling the value of Christian clubs. "It woke a lot of kids up," he says. "That's true everywhere I've spoken. This is a national thing."

--Reported by Richard N. Ostling/Minneapolis and Niagara Falls
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: April 27, 1998

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The Priest At The Party
Greens Flip Over Turtles
Dividing Line
The Notebook: He Said, She Said
Spiriting Prayer Into School

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