LONG BEACH, Calif. -- While Congress continues to debate the place of prayer in public schools, religion seems to have already found a niche in public education.
Religious clubs on high school and middle school campuses across the nation are drawing thousands of teen-agers to regular meetings, a sign of flourishing youthful interest in religion.
Throughout the nation, religious clubs have been growing rapidly.
"Almost every week this year, a club has gotten started or is about to be started," said Al Siebert, executive director of the Greater Long Beach chapter of Youth for Christ.
The 50-year-old organization, with 225 chapters in the United States, works with teen-agers, many of whom lead or participate in campus clubs. The Greater Long Beach chapter helps support nearly 50 campus and off-campus Christian clubs that meet weekly. Most started in the past five or six years.
In the past year alone, said Dennis Luce, youth pastor at Life Center Assembly of God Church in Lakewood, Calif., local club participation has gone up dramatically.
"People are always talking about this generation in pretty negative terms," Mr. Luce said. "But I'm seeing the opposite. [Teen-agers] are not satisfied with the materialism of the 1980s. They are not satisfied with the free love and free sex of the 1970s. . . . They are looking for something that they can hold on to, something that is meaningful. And what they're finding is a relationship with Jesus Christ is real."
Although most of the clubs are Christian, Jewish and Muslim students have also formed campus clubs. Lakewood High School students, for example, recently formed a Jewish religious club. And Los Alamitos High School has had a Jewish Culture Club and an Islamic Awareness Club for a couple of years.
"During the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, the Islamic club held a lunchtime meeting where they invited all students to come and find out what the holiday is all about," said Jerry Halpin, assistant principal in charge of activities at Los Alamitos High. "In past years, around Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish club has done the same thing."
Club leaders say the groups help provide moral guidance.
"There are a lot of needs kids have but can't find the answers to in public education, because public education is so neutral morally and, in a sense, amoral," said Chuck Klein, national director of Student Venture, a youth division of Campus Crusade for Christ.
Ashley Vittitoe, 18, a senior at Long Beach's Wilson High School, leads the Lost and Found club.
She said the club's activities are centered around the Bible. Topics such as sexuality are discussed from a Christian perspective.
"It opens some people's eyes," said Ms. Vittitoe, an athlete and student government leader who maintains a 3.5 grade-point average. "God sets specific guidelines to protect us."
Andrew Poe, 17, of Los Alamitos has led the Cross Bearers Bible Club at Los Alamitos High School for the past two years.
"We pray and preach and have a good time," said Mr. Poe, student body president.
"I like the fellowship in a Christian club," he said. "As a Christian in a public school, you're going to have some tough times. It's good to get together with other Christians who build you up and encourage you."
Getting religious clubs on public school campuses has not been without controversy.
Schools in the Northeast tend to be less open to religious clubs than schools in other parts of the country, Mr. Klein, of Student Venture, said.
On Long Island, N.Y., for example, teachers and school officials have torn down fliers announcing religious club meetings and challenged the clubs' right to use school facilities, said Eric Dennie, project coordinator for Youth for Christ/Long Island. "One of the roles YFC plays is to inform kids of their rights," he said.
The Equal Access Act gives religious clubs the same status as other noncurriculum clubs such as Students Against Drunk Driving and Young Republicans. They are allowed to invite guest speakers, use the public announcement system to alert students to meetings and put on special events.
The clubs must be student-led and initiated, must meet when other noncurriculum clubs meet (at lunchtime or before and after school) and cannot discriminate against students based on political, philosophical or religious distinction.
When the EAA was passed by Congress in 1984, it was supported by a wide range of organizations, including the Parent Teacher Association and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, said Jack Crabtree, executive director of Youth for Christ/Long Island.
"But what happened, especially on the East Coast, is a lot of schools still denied student rights. So in June 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Equal Access Act as constitutional."
Doug Honig, public education director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle, said the ACLU is wary of religious clubs at public schools.
"Our concern is the inclusion of prayer in schools and the indoctrination of certain religious beliefs in a public school setting," he said.
In 1993, the Renton, Wash., school district forbade Lindbergh High School students from praying and studying the Bible before school, citing the state constitution, which forbids religious activities on school property. Lawyers for the school district, supported by the ACLU, argued that the state constitution had precedence over federal law.
However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Equal Access Act took precedence over state law. And Lindbergh High School today has an active Christian club.
In other parts of the country -- the Southeast and Texas and parts of California -- school districts are more open to the existence of these clubs, Student Venture's Mr. Klein said.
The key is communicating and building a trusting relationship with school officials, YFC's Mr. Siebert said. "Once they realize that you are not going to do anything to discredit the school, they are more open to the idea," he said.
Maurice Miller -- who coordinates YFC activities in Compton, Carson and Lynwood in Southern California -- noted that the African-American community is particularly supportive.
"Parents love it," he said. "They see their children becoming more responsible, doing homework, not talking back."
Janette Gamboa said her daughter's participation in the club at Hughes Middle School in Long Beach made her a sharp Sunday school student at church. It's good for her, she added.
Her daughter, Desiree, 12, described the club as fun.
"It has visitors who tell you how they got to know God, and it's interesting," she said.
H. J. Green, principal of Poly High School in Long Beach, said teen-age interest in religious clubs should come as "no great surprise."
"I think there's been a misconception that . . . along the years interest in such clubs went away. Participation has always been directly related to youth-related activities in the community."
Mr. Halpin, assistant principal at Los Alamitos High School, agreed.
"The clubs on the high school level are only as good as their student leaders," he said. "The Cross Bearers may not be as big next year because the students leading it may not be as organized. . . . Kids are the driving force behind the clubs."
Local ministers such as Mr. Miller of YFC hope to keep the momentum going.
"Kids today are worried about violence at home, violence on dates, violence at school," Mr. Miller said. "This gives them a way to deal with their problems."