School prayer: 50 years after the ban, God and faith more present than ever

Mark Chancey, religious studies professor at SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, talks about the presence of God and faith in schools, 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court banned school prayer.

By Lee Lawrence

Atlanta - At the adolescent-unfriendly hour of 7:10 on this rainy spring morning in tiny Loachapoka, Ala., classes won't start for another half hour in the public school. But already the science lab at Loachapoka High School is coming alive with the banter of 13 teens sloughing off backpacks and settling in to learn – not about chemistry or biology, but about faith.

"Who knows what happened this weekend?" asks Kevin Flannagan, regional director for Campus Life ministry.

Immediately, the teens quiet down to listen. "Easter," a boy volunteers.

"Jesus rose, yes," Mr. Flannagan says. Then, in a tone as gentle as it is friendly, he recaps the Bible story and asks, "So why is it called Good Friday?"

A girl answers: "Because he died for us, and that's a good thing." A few heads nod.

As Flannagan goes on to tell the story of a boy making an empty Easter egg – "he got it that the meaning of Easter is the empty tomb" – the emotional climate in the room is not one of fervor, but of comfort.

Asked why it's worth coming to school early for a Campus Life meeting, a lanky senior wearing an Adidas shirt answers simply: "I like to learn about Jesus."

It has been 50 years since the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer. But God and faith are probably present in more ways now than ever in public schools, say law and religion experts and activists.

"We've gone from virtual silence about religion in the curriculum and virtually no student religious expression in many schools," says Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center and head of the Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, D.C., "to today, when social studies and other standards are fairly generous to religion, and students are expressing their faiths in many different ways in many public schools, if not most."...

Programs like this bolster Mark Chancey's conviction that "religious literacy is essential." A professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Mr. Chancey says, "we all need to know about each other as our country becomes more diverse because we all have to get along."...