But in some corners of the country, especially in the rural South, open prayer and Christian symbols have never really disappeared from schools, with what legal advocates call brazen violations of the law coming to light many times each year.
At a school assembly here in South Carolina on Sept. 1, a preacher described how Christ saved him from drugs, telling his rapt audience that “a relationship with Jesus is what you need more than anything else.” A rapper shouted the Lord’s praise to a light show and most of the audience stepped forward to pledge themselves to Christ while a few remained, uncomfortable, in their seats.
Such overt evangelizing would not be unusual at a prayer rally, but this was a daytime celebration in a public school gymnasium, arranged by the principal for sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
When the rapper posted a video on YouTube, announcing that “324 kids at this school have made a decision for Jesus Christ,” he drew unwelcome public and legal scrutiny to the event. It was the kind of religious advocacy that is increasingly coming to light, legal experts say, as school populations become more diverse and as the objection of non-Christians — or, in this case, the rejoicing of evangelists — is broadcast on the Internet.
In landmark decisions in 1962 and 1963, the Supreme Court barred official promotion of religion in schools. That principle has remained solid, if pilloried by conservatives who blame it for what they see as the nation’s moral and social decline. At the same time, the courts and Congress have also reinforced the rights of students to pray on their own and to form after-school religious clubs.
But battles over the place of religion in schools continue. This month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit demanding that the Chesterfield County, S.C., school district end what the suit describes as the continuing promotion of religion in several of its schools, including the middle school that held the prayer rally. The A.C.L.U. brought the suit on behalf of a seventh grader who said he was subjected to unwanted proselytizing and has been harassed for his avowals of atheism.
Among other recent examples:
¶ At Pace High School near Pensacola, Fla., teachers cited the Bible as fact in class and one teacher preached to students with a bullhorn as they arrived at school. In litigation that ended in July, the Santa Rosa County district agreed to stop promotion of religion but said that teachers could pray in private settings and could use expressions like “God bless you.”
¶ In Sumner County, Tenn., teachers led students in prayer and Bible study, and allowed Gideons International to distribute Bibles during school hours. Officials agreed this month to end the practices.
¶ In Baltimore, under threat of a lawsuit last spring, district officials stopped a school principal from holding prayer services to help students prepare for a standardized test.
“We continue to see, on a regular basis across the country, public school officials who include prayer in school events, try to convert students and engage in other promotion of religion,” said Heather Weaver, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U.’s program on religious freedom.
“In recent years, public school officials have engaged in these activities even more aggressively,” Ms. Weaver added.
Christian legal advocates counter that such plain violations are far less common than the opposite problem: overzealous officials trying to cleanse the schools of religion, punishing students for protected speech like personal prayer or handing out devotional messages to their friends.
“The free-speech rights of students and teachers are under an all-out assault,” said Kelly Shackelford, president of the Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group in Plano, Tex. He described one continuing legal case in which “children had pencils ripped out of their hands” because they carried a Christian message and students were “banned from writing Merry Christmas to the soldiers.”
Despite such disputes, legal religious expression is more present in schools now than it has been for decades, said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington who advises school districts and helped develop teacher guidelines that are consistent with the law. It has been firmly established, he said, that students may pray if it is not disruptive, and can share their faith with other students. Teachers may pray with other teachers outside of class, though not in front of students during school hours.
But gray areas persist and dozens of bitter disputes erupt every year over the propriety of student prayers at graduations and football games (usually ruled illegal if given over a loudspeaker to a captive audience) or whether children can hand out written prayers at a Christmas party (permissible in theory, some experts say, but courts have allowed school officials to make judgments based on the circumstances).
Watchdog groups like the A.C.L.U., Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation say that in the last few years, they have learned more often about what they call blatant violations like the South Carolina rally. It is unclear, they say, whether the number of such events is growing, or whether they are now more likely to come to light. But still, these advocates say, even when clear violations occur, concerned families are often reluctant to bring legal challenges because they fear social hostility.
The September prayer rally at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson had deep support in the community. With a population of 47,000, Chesterfield County supports at least 200 Christian churches, according to Paul Wood Jr., pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Cheraw, S.C.
“There’s not a lot of religious diversity here, so it becomes hard for people to believe that everybody isn’t a Christian,” said Mr. Wood, who was perhaps the only pastor in the county to publicly question the rally.
The students were addressed by Christian Chapman of Charlotte, N.C., who describes himself as a “traveling evangelist” and often speaks at schools, he said in an interview.
“I definitely think that we should try to get our relationship with Christ back into the schools,” said Mr. Chapman, 43. “Jesus represents everything we want our students to live by.”
For non-Christians to hear this message, he said, is no worse than Bible believers being forced to hear about evolution every day.
On the videotape about the rally, Mr. Chapman quotes the school principal, Larry Stinson, as saying, “I want these kids to know that eternal life is real, and I don’t care what happens to me, they’re going to hear it today.”
Mr. Stinson declined to comment, while a district spokesman, Ken Buck, said that the district was studying the lawsuit and would not intentionally violate the Constitution.
According to the suit, the rally during school hours was far from an isolated event. Mr. Stinson routinely opens school programs with prayer, it alleges, and has often invited Christian speakers. A large poster of the Ten Commandments hangs on a hallway wall, a picture of Jesus hangs in the lobby, and a cross and two Bibles are on a table in the main office.
The principal’s supporters noted that students were given the option of skipping the rally.
According to Jonathan Anderson, who is a plaintiff in the suit along with his seventh-grade son, the boy was told that to avoid the assembly he had to report to the suspension room, which the boy interpreted as a punishment.
In any case, said Ms. Weaver, the A.C.L.U. lawyer, “the law is clear that a school cannot hold a worship rally, irrespective of whether it is optional.”
Mr. Stinson, in an e-mail exchange with a local pastor who expressed support, wrote, “Please pray for the dark forces out there who would seek to do harm in this situation.”
Correction: December 27, 2011
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Kelly Shackelford, president of the Liberty Institute.