At 7 a.m. yesterday, while their classmates were still hustling out the door for school, 44 Oakland Mills High School students joined hands around the school's flagpole for a few minutes of Christian prayer.
"Thank you for our numbers," prayed Nicole Cousins, 15, a junior, who asked God not to let students "get sucked into the awful ways of this world."
The student prayer circle was one of at least 10 at county public schools yesterday, part of an international event called "See You At The Pole," expected to draw nearly 2 million globally.
Participants see the event as an important declaration of faith at a time of frequent battles in many places over the legality of prayer on public school grounds.
But the Howard County event drew no opposition from the local director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the Christian students' actions are protected by the First Amendment.
"As long as schools aren't sponsoring or endorsing it, and it doesn't stop kids from going to their classes, there's nothing wrong with it," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the Maryland ACLU.
The event comes as school officials around the country struggle to balance the demands of religious students against the ban on state sponsorship of religion.
This year marked the 30th anniversary of the controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned official prayer and Bible readings from America's public classrooms.
But in June 1990, the high court ruled that public schools must provide religious clubs the same access to school facilities as they do other student groups.
A few months later, Chuck Flowers, a youth minister in Texas, organized the flagpole event so public school students could display their Christian faith.
Last year, the event drew 1.5 million students worldwide, said Kent Huckstep, operations director for the National Network of Youth Ministries in San Diego.
Those gatherings have been marked by occasional controversy, including the arrest of two students at a flagpole prayer meeting in southern Illinois.
Yesterday's county events were free of such conflict, however, with school officials portraying the prayer sessions as strictly voluntary student activities.
"By its very nature, it's not a disruptive activity at all," said Patti Caplan, county school spokeswoman. "We're not promoting it, and we're certainly not discouraging it."
About 245 public high school and middle school students participated this year, down from the 350 county students last year, said Richard L. Stum, who works for a youth ministry, the Navigators, in Columbia.
Students had learned about the event through schools, churches and youth ministries.
The event had the support of local religious leaders, including William Crowe of the Howard Baptist Association, a group of 19 )) churches. "It shows they're not alone," he said.
At Oakland Mills, the students gathered about 30 minutes before school started to pray for themselves, their schools, and an answer to drugs, AIDS and other societal ills.
"Let everybody see in us what you want them to see, so we can be examples," prayed Lauren McHargue, 16, a junior.
"This is a witness to your classmates that you can go to school and be bold and not be ashamed," Darryl Blodget, a youth pastor for Long Reach Church of God, told the students.
"It's encouraging to see so many Christians at our school," said senior Danielle Sams, 17, after the prayers. "It shows how many people know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and go to church."
Several students who didn't participate said they had no objections to the prayer circle.
L "They can do what they want," said Drew Young, 17, a senior.