Letting God Back In

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The morning's guest speaker, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, took the stage at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. "Everyone stand up, hold hands with your neighbor and repeat after me," he instructed. Before long, the gymnasium broke into a rousing call-and-response chant. It could have been a school pep rally, except that many of the students and teachers had their heads bowed, and they were calling out prayers for each other and peace on earth. "Afterward we asked our teachers, 'Is he actually allowed to do that?'" recalls senior Ankur Shah, 16, a Hindu who as a young child moved to America from India. "Can he pray in a public school?"

Before Sept. 11, the answer was a crisp and concise no. Today it's open for debate. Seeking to reassure their students by any means necessary, schools across the country are turning more openly to God. Attendance surged at this year's annual See You at the Pole celebration, where Christian teens congregate at their school flagpoles for a sunrise prayer session. Such gatherings, which transpire outside of school hours, are constitutionally sound. But the same spirit is seeping into the school day. Some teachers are broadcasting morning blessings over the p.a. system or praying with distraught students. "My students and employees have been praying openly, and now it isn't questioned," says Dot Dodge, principal of Springstead High School in Spring Hill, Fla. "It feels like permission has been granted."

Some lawmakers feel emboldened as well. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has proclaimed October "Student Religious Liberty Month" and is sending a letter urging school districts to allow students to pray; the letter also includes information about the Supreme Court's recent thinking on religion in the classroom. Meanwhile, South Carolina legislators are pushing to revive what looks like full-blown school-sponsored prayer. Republican House members gathered last week to "pre-introduce" a bill mandating a "moment of silent prayer," language that has been struck down by courts. "Tens of millions of Americans broke the law on Sept. 11 and in the days that followed--they prayed in public places. Kids prayed in schools," enthused the home page of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which sponsors thousands of student prayer clubs. "As we return to some sense of normalcy, let's recognize our dependence on God."

Everet Simmons, 17, a senior at Springstead High, views Sept. 11 as a "religious-outreach opportunity." On a recent Saturday, he helped transform his school theater into a sanctuary. Four ministers and two church choirs presided over a service for 1,300 teachers, students and community members. Simmons received plaques from his church and a local Republican club for his efforts. But the senior's biggest reward has been inside the classroom. Kids who used to crack jokes during the daily moment of silence now hold their tongues. "It's been like the opening of a gate," he says.

Civil libertarians have done little to close it. Actions that would ordinarily have drawn reflexive howls from First Amendment watchdogs have instead been met with relative silence. "From a community-relations perspective," says Ken Jacobson of the Anti-Defamation League, "this is not the moment to make these issues prominent." The American Civil Liberties Union complained after Breen Elementary School in Rocklin, Calif., posted a "God Bless America" message on a campus marquee, only to be roasted on the letters page of the local paper and likened to the Taliban. "Very few of us want to nitpick what is or isn't legal in this emotional moment," says Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. "But over the next few months, these actions will be challenged."

Until then, John Burruss, an administrator with the Mustang Public Schools outside Oklahoma City, has seized the moment. At a recent football game, he joined in a stadium-wide prayer. "People in time of crisis are drawn to their faith," he says. "They turn their eyes to God and their country." The question is whether, in a time of crisis, they're ready to erase the line between the two.