A call to prayer . . . without state interference

One value of the National Day of Prayer could be to remind Americans of the need to foster and safeguard prayer as an unfailing resource for the coming generations. It is a need that cuts across denominational lines. Its basic answer lies in giving children the example of a perpetual renewal of prayer in homes and religious institutions.

To be blunt about it, the government's role is simply not to interfere. The US Supreme Court has recognized this by interpreting the Constitution to permit silent individual prayer in schools--but to prohibit organized prayers. Yet there have been perennial attempts in Congress to get around or overturn the court's view. Recently, buoyed by the election of Ronald Reagan, the far right has sought to weaken the separation of church and state through such dubious devices as limiting means of enforcement or jurisdiction of the courts.

If the nation does want to make an exception to the Constitution, the way to do it is by constitutional amendment. In this respect, President Reagan would be taking the correct approach by offering an amendment to authorize school prayer, as he reportedly intends to do tomorrow. Both those for and against such an amendment were skeptically awaiting his exact wording. Would it crystallize the issue or be a meaningless gesture?

Mr. Reagan was said to want some kind of ''voluntary'' group prayer. Such prayers have been struck down in various places in line with Supreme Court rulings. The question is whether any amendment could avoid the virtual mockery of prayer such as occurred in some Massachusetts schools under a state ''voluntary'' prayer law during the six weeks before it was judged unconstitutional. Visits to classrooms found children apparently feeling they had to compete or recite some prayer, however inappropriate, when the teacher asked for student volunteers. Nonparticipants faced embarrassment in being excused to leave the room.

This all seems a prescription for confusing and undercutting family and religious efforts to help children pray. Congress, which has rejected several school prayer amendments before, ought to be no less wary now. The new visibility of the far right--with or without support from the White House--does not give it a monopoly on concern for children's prayers. But its Constitution-defying method of addressing this concern could prevail unless other Americans also make themselves heard.

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