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

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Granted, courts haven't always agreed. Reflecting regional attitudes, a court in Ohio deemed it legal for a student to wear a T-shirt sporting a Christian slogan critical of homosexuality while, in a similar case in California, a court ruled against the student. Similarly, says Charles J. Russo, who teaches law and theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio, US circuit courts have disagreed over the constitutionality of a student leading prayers at public school graduations. Federal courts in the West and Northeast ruled it illegal; courts in the South upheld it.

Supreme Court cases, however, hold sway nationwide, and two in particular fueled the growth of religion in public schools. In 1990, the court compelled public high schools to give student-led religious clubs the same access enjoyed by other non-curricular clubs. Then in 2001 the court ruled that elementary schools that welcomed programs such as Girl Scouts could not bar the after-school Good News Club because it was evangelical Christian. That violated the Free Speech Clause.

Rulings versus enforcement

Though the courts have consistently barred school-sponsored prayers, when Nicholas Weldy surveyed Ohio school superintendents for his University of Dayton doctoral thesis in 2001, more than 40 percent said there had been some form of prayer at graduation.

Some schools turn a blind eye to serve what they perceive as a greater good. At Hull Middle School in Benton Harbor, Mich., pastors walked the halls, broke up fights, and sat in the back of classrooms, their silent presence exuding authority.

"The kids had tremendous respect for them, probably more than for the police or the truancy officer," says Robert Lawrence, who taught at the school for 10 years before it closed in 2011. In this area, clobbered by unemployment, crime, and drugs, so many middle-schoolers had rap sheets that parole officers had a campus office.

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