Thursday, September 21, 2000

Teens gather to affirm faith

Annual prayer meetings held outside schools

By Jennifer Mrozowski and Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON, Ky. — Just before sunrise Wednesday, 200 students circled the flagpole at Conner High School to pray.

        Jordan Dallas stood on a bench, projecting her voice above the noise of cars, school buses and chatty students passing by. Quoting from the Bible, the 17-year-old senior urged students to share their faith.

[photo] Jordan Dallas, a senior at Conner High School, stands on a bench outside the school Wednesday morning as she talks about religious issues.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        “There are 1,000 people who aren't here that go to our school,” Jordan said.

        “Part of our job as Christians is to witness to them about God.”

        The Boone County teens were among thousands of public and private school students gathered at flagpoles across the nation Wednesday for the annual “See You at the Pole” prayer meeting.

        It's part of a decade-long international movement in which student-led groups meet at the flagpole at their schools to pray before class. Organizers say about 3 million students participated in 1998. Across the Tristate, students participated at high schools, including Lakota East, Fairfield, Milford, Aiken and Walnut Hills.

        On the heels of a recent Supreme Court decision against school-sponsored prayer at football games, students say such gatherings take on a greater meaning.

        “It's amazing to see all these people come here for God,” said Conner's Stephanie Wakelam, 16.

        For some Fairfield High School students, their faith is so important that they gather at the high school every Thursday at 6:15 a.m. to pray. The group, members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, changed their meeting time to join in the wider celebration.

        “Lately, religion in general has been taken away from schools,” said Fairfield senior Elizabeth Stephens. “To keep this part of our religion as a right in our school is excellent.”

        Elizabeth, 17, said the flagpole gathering allows her to reaffirm her faith without trampling the rights of others.

        Nevertheless, a prayer meeting on school grounds may raise eyebrows. “See You at the Pole” stresses faith affirmation and the importance of prayer — issues which are traditionally “hands-off” for public schools.

        However, the gatherings are legal because they are student-led, not school-sponsored, and are held before classes begin.

        In June, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in a Texas case — Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe — that public schools cannot allow student-led prayer before high school football games.

        The flagpole meetings are different because the meetings are not arranged by schools, said Scott Greenwood, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

        As long as schools do not endorse or inhibit the flagpole gathering, it's legal, said John Concannon, attorney for Cincinnati Public Schools. Schools have to remain neutral, he said.

        However, it can open a can of worms, Mr. Greenwood said. By allowing one group to meet at the flagpole, schools have to let all student groups gather there, he said.

        Similarly, he said, if schools allow noncurriculum groups such as the chess club to meet on campus, they have to let Christian groups gather, he said.

        For students, “See You at the Pole” is simply about faith.

        “I believe that ... when we are all united and of one mind, the prayers will just manifest themselves,” said 16-year-old LaToya Robinson of Walnut Hills High School.

        Fairfield senior Lee Martin agrees.

        “Basically it gives us a chance to pray for things that are most important in our lives right now — like school and our future,” he said.

        And by gathering in front of schools, students can draw attention to their message.

        “If this will help bring more people to the Lord,” said Conner freshman Kurtis Mahan, 13, “we need to do it as much as possible.”

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