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Divide in Schools Is More Than Spiritual

Student-led prayer clubs are flourishing at more than 10,000 U.S. campuses. But along with acceptance, their presence has brought tension and set off social rifts with other teen cliques.

May 09, 1998|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WELCOME, N.C. — The prayers offered Tuesday mornings in the cafeteria at North Davidson Middle School are barely audible, faint under the clatter of pots from the kitchen. They are teenage supplications from the tiny student prayer club, a chorus fast becoming the voice of religion in the nation's public schools--and a growing social presence that has energized campuses and sometimes divided them.

The morning devotions at the rural junior high are both petty and profound, simple requests for help over the long school day and pleas for deliverance from life's unbearable moments. One girl asks to look her best on Picture Day. Another wishes good luck for friends on a church tour through Jamaica.

"I'd like to pray for my grandmother," says 11-year-old Kevan Chandler. "She's doing a lot better and she's starting to walk now."

The red-haired boy does not ask for a prayer for himself, although muscular dystrophy has put him in a wheelchair. He listens silently as a classmate quotes from Psalms, then joins the others in devotions: "Be with us the rest of the day. Amen." Slinging a digital autoharp onto his lap, Kevan strums slowly. It is a hymn, "We Will Glorify," and its final notes fade in time for the first class bell.

They call themselves Knights for Christ--a play on the feudal nickname of North Davidson's sports teams. There are barely 30 of them, a number that rises and falls depending on who oversleeps and who has tests to cram for, who has strayed and who has found their way.

The Knights are one of more than 10,000 prayer clubs that have sprung up in American public schools since 1990, when the Supreme Court upheld the viability of the Equal Access Act--a 1984 law mandating that federally funded secondary schools allow student-led religious clubs that are not linked to the curriculum and do not interfere with school operations. The crusade to win equal access for prayer clubs took wing in Huntington Beach, where a 1975 battle over Bible readings popularized the concept of student religious groups through California and the nation.

The movement grew quietly until last December, when gunfire was sprayed into a prayer circle in a high school lobby in West Paducah, Ky. Three students died and five were wounded.

The slayings became a rallying point for Christian youths, accelerating the growth of prayer clubs--now found in nearly a third of all secondary schools. At Heath High School in West Paducah, principal Bill Bond was deluged with letters and calls from youths bent on starting clubs in memory of the slain prayer circle members.

"For Christian kids, it was like the day [President] Kennedy was shot," says Dawson McAllister, a teenage-oriented radio evangelist whose weekly program is carried over 400 stations. "They all remember where they were."

Crucifix necklaces and "meet me at the pole" T-shirts (an invitation to autumn worship rallies at school flagpoles) are such common sights that many clubs have become an accepted part of campus life, metamorphosing into a new teenage social caste. They are mostly a benign presence, noticed only in a hymn rising from a classroom or a discreet yearbook caption. But at some schools--even, surprisingly, in Bible belt communities--their emergence has set off social rifts with other cliques.

Taunts and Threats 'Can Get Pretty Ugly'

In West Paducah, an undercurrent of taunts and threats played out between prayer circle members and skateboarders before the shooting spree and the arrest of 14-year-old Michael Carneal, a skateboard devotee and alternative rock fan charged in the slayings. For months before the shootings, as the prayer circle gathered, Carneal and other skateboarders heckled them, prompting club members to respond in kind. Months after the shooting, Bond says, "some of the tension's still there."

Even on quiet campuses like North Davidson, sniping between the Knights for Christ and students who idolize antireligion rocker Marilyn Manson have become a caustic rite. As they pass in halls and the lunchroom, Manson devotees sneer to the Knights that there is no heaven. Some Knights suffer in silence, but others scoff at their taunters' black fingernail polish and call them "freaks."

"You hear it from both sides," says 14-year-old Brian Tomallo, who has friends in the Knights and a sister who idolizes Marilyn Manson. "It can get pretty ugly."

The violence of West Paducah was an anomaly, a result of the gunman's inner turmoil, not student tensions, prayer activists insist. And despite the social tremors sometimes set off by the presence of prayer clubs, many have sunk deep roots into public schools, say educators, students and civil libertarians who long distrusted them.

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