Four years ago, officials at Atlanta's Henderson High School told eighth grader Will Hinton that he and his friends in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes would have to drop "Christian" from the group's name if they wanted to continue holding their prayer meetings and Bible study sessions on school grounds.

In the next few years, Hinton said, school administrators cracked down harder -- ordering the students to hold their meetings off campus, barring them from announcing the gatherings over the school's public address system and threating to kick Hinton off the yearbook if it portrayed the group.

Last week, a Supreme Court ruling changed all that.

On Tuesday -- the day after the court upheld the constitutionality of a 1984 federal law requiring high schools that offer extracurricular activities to provide religious clubs equal access to school facilities -- Henderson administrators approved a poster advertising an off-campus meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

School is out for the summer in Atlanta, and Will Hinton has graduated and will start college this fall. But his younger brother, Matt, who will be a junior, expects to hold fellowship meetings at the school when he returns.

"We've kind of been on hold for a while waiting" for the Supreme Court ruling, a delighted Will Hinton said last week, after the court's 8 to 1 decision. "I think that the school is there to provide access for students that would like to meet."

When classes resume, students and school officials at Henderson High and other schools across the country will be confronted with the fallout from the court's ruling in Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens.

Some, like school administrators in DeKalb County, Ga., which includes Henderson High, expressed a degree of relief last week that the court had finally resolved their conflicting constitutional responsibilities to permit free exercise of religion and to maintain the separation of church and state.

Before the decision, said Deputy Superintendent William Strain, "it was our interpretation that this violated the concept of separation of church and state." Now, he said. "as long as it's legal, it would be absolutely no problem to administer."

But a number of other school officials and their representatives said they were unhappy with the court's interpretation of the equal access law, which requires public high schools that permit extracurricular clubs not directly related to the curriculum to allow religious, political and philosophical groups to meet as well.

"Schools want to open their doors to various groups, but they also want some control . . . in deciding the appropriateness of having that type of group meet in the school building," said Gary Marx of the American Association of School Administrators.

In the Mergens case, the justices rejected the school board's argument that groups like the chess, scuba and service clubs were related in some way to the overall curriculum. They said the school, by allowing such clubs, became what previous First Amendment decisions call a "limited open forum." As such, the court said, the school must provide equal access.

Some school administrators complain that the court's narrow interpretation of what clubs are "curriculum-related" (a French club, for example, if the school offers a French class, would meet the court's standard), leaves them with a Hobson's choice. They can either shut down many clearly desirable clubs or be forced to open school facilities to an array of groups in addition to religious clubs, some of which officials see as potentially disruptive, such as political clubs, or abortion-rights and antiabortion groups.

James Findley, principal of Westside High School in Omaha, said last week that when he turned down Bridget Mergens's request to form a Christian Club in 1985, "I didn't have a concern about the five or six kids having a Bible study club. I was concerned about what and who it opens the doors to. I've had students say they'll start a Satanist club or a skinheads group. We're dealing with kids that are bright, are going to test the system, and see that as a way to test the system."

While the equal access law has been on the books for six years, many school systems have been awaiting guidance from the high court to determine how to deal with such requests, and last week's ruling is bound to spur even more of them.

School boards around the country, said August Steinhilber, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, have been calling nonstop since the ruling: " 'What does it mean?' 'What do I have to do?' 'Can we get together to talk?' There's going to be a lot of meetings going on around the United States this summer."

Religious groups and others cheered by the court's ruling agreed that the decision would trigger additional interest in organizing such clubs and force school boards, which had generally refused such requests in the past, to change their attitudes.

Students seeking to set up religious clubs had met "major, major resistance" in the past, said Jay Sekulow of Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, who represented before the Supreme Court Mergens and other students who sought to set up a Christian Club at the Omaha high school.

Sekulow dismissed concerns about problems posed by more controversial groups, noting that such a "parade of horribles has not reared its ugly head" during the last six years, and that school administrators retain power under the law to exclude disruptive clubs. "The school has not been asked to abandon control of its environment, but it cannot discriminate against religious speech or political speech," he said.

Some lawyers also said the court in the future may have to confront additional questions such as what steps school officials must take to distance themselves from religious clubs -- to avoid the appearance of endorsing a particular religion -- or to limit proselytizing that could coerce students to join the clubs in a bid for popularity or acceptance.

"This is not the last we're going to hear about this kind of litigation," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, citing questions about the role of faculty sponsors, announcements on the public address system or promotions on school bulletin boards.

But Michael McConnell, representing a group of Washington state Christian students in a similar case that the justices are likely to send back to the lower courts for review in light of the Mergens decision, said he thought the ruling had resolved most questions.

"The impact is going to be that religious Bible study and prayer groups at most high schools around the country will now be able to meet on equal terms with other extracurricular groups," he said. "I don't think there's a legal requirement that schools disassociate themselves {from such clubs} any more than the schools have already been doing."

In Omaha, Bridget Mergens Mayhew, now 23, said she was delighted by the ruling. "We just wanted to be treated like all the other clubs at Westside," she said. "The intention was for our own health, spiritually or whatever, just to be there for each other. It's very important to have some sort of positive encouragement on a daily basis, being able to know the other Christians in your school."