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

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Pastors occasionally addressed morning assembly and sometimes used Christian language in the hallways. But, Mr. Lawrence, who was not religious at the time, says, "I never saw a problem with it." The school population was predominantly African-American and culturally rooted in Christianity, so in his view there was no evangelizing: "It was an all-out war against the streets. Any help anyone could bring was more than welcome."

Similar "gray areas" arise involving religious clubs and programs. Briefly, clubs fall under the Equal Access Act, which stipulates that they must be student-led, participation must be voluntary, faculty sponsors can only observe, and no outside adult can "regularly attend." They can take place during the school day during a designated "club time" or after class.

Notasulga High School is an Alabama K-12 school west of Auburn with a turbulent history of desegregation. Today, 99 percent of its 405 students are eligible for the free lunch program, and despite a dramatic turnaround in graduation rates and test scores, principal Brelinda Sullen says she fights every day to keep the district from shutting the doors. When Campus Life director Flannagan asked Mrs. Sullen whether students would be interested in a program, she jumped at the opportunity: "It's all about character building, and Campus Life helps us build character in our kids."

But she knows the law, she says, and "I know how far I can go." She restricts attendance to high school students and makes it strictly voluntary. In the absence of other student clubs, anyone not participating can use club time for study hall. Though all high school students currently participate in Campus Life, Sullen says, a few students in the past have bowed out.

This suggests Campus Life is a religious club. But because Flannagan attends and conducts virtually every meeting, it could fall under rules for outside-led, after-school programs. As with Hull Middle School, the situation is not clear-cut and will remain so unless there is a complaint.

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