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Faith-based clubs led by students
Religion typically kept out of school day
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Religion is a touchy subject in the public school system.

Though students are allowed to pray on their own time, religion is typically kept out of the school day.

Student-led clubs such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the only public school religious organization in Hall County and Gainesville City schools, must meet before or after school.

Jason Lester, FCA area director for Hall County and Gainesville, said the group has been around for more than 50 years.

"I think in the South, in the Bible Belt, it's a little more prevalent. For us it's the only legal way for kids to be able to ... pray, read your Bible, have folks come in and share God's word in the school system because it's a recognized club and it's student-led," Lester said.

In Hall County and Gainesville, the middle school FCA tends to be larger than high school, Lester said. The smaller groups in the high school allow those students such activities as Bible studies.

For Johnson High School sophomore Michael Bookwalter, 17, FCA is an opportunity to share his testimony with others. He said his mother and stepfather, an ex-inmate, were both hooked on drugs. Some days, Bookwalter would come home and there was no food in the house. All the money had been spent on illegal substances.

"Do I think religion should be in school? Heck yeah," Bookwalter said. "FCA gives me and the others the opportunity to reach the lost and secondly to grow with each other. Teachers can't share Christ with students but FCA is a chance for us to do that."

Johnson's FCA meets once a week in the media center with 30 to 70 students, adviser Deborah Eidson said. Some FCA groups, such as Johnson's, have smaller break-off groups.

A prayer group meets and smaller groups hold Bible studies.

"We typically have some kind of music — I have a leader that plays acoustic guitar — and then we either have a speaker or we'll have a prayer walk, where we'll walk around the school and pray for the students, teachers and administration," Eidson said. "That's the most amazing thing to me, being able to pray and talk about God."

Gainesville High senior Emily Lawson, 17, is one of two co-captains of the Red Elephants' FCA. She said though the group is founded on Christian principles, everyone is welcome.

Hall schools Superintendent Will Schofield said students are free to organize into clubs as long as there is no distraction to the school day.

"We don't have any organizations in the schools," said Tanya Applebaum, corresponding secretary for Shalom B'harim synagogue in Dahlonega. "There's organizations in college, like Hillel. ... As far as the schools themselves, there are no Jewish organizations that I know of for kids to belong to, not like your (FCA). We don't have anything like that."

Instead of an FCA in the school, Applebaum said Jewish students have outlets such as Jewish Community Centers and activities in their synagogues.

There is also no organization for Muslim students at local schools, said Imam Bilal Ali of the Gainesville Islamic Culture Center. Instead, students look to their mosque for programs.

"We have a weekend program for younger children to study Quran and religion," Ali said. "In some larger schools you have the MSA, Muslim Student Association."

Mark Tomcho, a special education teacher at Chestatee High, believes organizations for non-Christian students are a good idea, but he fears they wouldn't be well-received by the public, he said in an email to The Times

"We're in the Bible Belt. There hasn't been any demand for other groups," said Nick Niesielowski, FCA advisor and special-education inclusion teacher at Gainesville High. "I'm sure if we went elsewhere, like to New York, there would be."