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

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The religious 'huddle'

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) is arguably the largest religious organization with a public school presence. Jeff Martin, executive vice president of ministry programs and resources, describes its "huddles" as student-led clubs with, ideally, coaches as faculty sponsors. A former college football player with a master's of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, he says the sponsors' influence is confined to a "ministry of presence, a ministry of attitude."

But anecdotal evidence suggests that policy can be one thing, implementation another.

When the huddle meets on Friday mornings at 6:30 at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Ga., Alex Durham, a senior and FCA leader, is a stickler for the rules. The faculty sponsor "sits at the back," she says.

In other schools, however, the athletic department can be "somewhat semiautonomous," says Bruce Grelle, director of the Religion and Public Education Resource Center at California State University, Chico. When his students recall their high school days, he says, some note: "Oh, yeah, the coaches and the team, they always prayed together before the game." Some, he speculates, don't realize this is illegal while others "do realize it and say, 'Well, we're going to keep doing it this way until you want to make an issue of it.' "

A student athlete at Lakeside High School in Atlanta did just that a few years ago. A teacher scolded him for "being disrespectful" when he didn't bow his head in prayer at a team huddle, says Chaim Neiditch, a rabbi with the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. "The boy called me the next day."

The school website now says, "FCA was originally started by Christian athletes as a safe place where students could come meet with fellow Christians," but is now "very welcoming to all."

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