Prayer in the schools

President Reagan has sent to Congress a proposed constitutional amendment to restore voluntary prayers in America's public schools.

Throughout most of our history, that right was taken for granted. But the Supreme Court has taken away that right and virtually banished religion from our schools. In several rulings over the last 20 years, the court has held that the First Amendment to the Constitution requires a ''wall of separation between church and state.''

There is nothing in the First Amendment - or anywhere else in the Constitution - that requires or even suggests that religion must be banished from the schools. All that the First Amendment says is that ''Congress shall make no law respecting the restab-lishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.''

It is clear that the founding fathers simply intended to prohibit an ''established church'' - the kind that existed at the time in England. In fact, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, 10 of the 13 original states extended official support or sanction to religion. There were ''established'' churches in New England states, and religious requirements for holding public office in the rest.

The First Amendment was demanded and ratified by those same states to prevent the establishment of a national religion and to protect their own, varied religious practices from federal interference.

Surely the last thing the framers of the Constitution had in mind was to abolish prayer in schools or other public places or to prohibit the appointment of chaplains and other official actions in support of religion - all of which were practiced by the Congress that passed the First Amendment and by the states that ratified it.

On the very day the language of the First Amendment was adopted, the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for a day of prayer and Thanksgiving ''to acknowledge with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.''

Religious freedom and diversity have played an important role in our country's history. Individuals or groups who are not religious and choose not to pray have a right to make that choice.

But their views should not be imposed on the rest of the nation. Until the Supreme Court stepped in, religious freedom and tolerance coexisted in our schools and other public places for nearly 200 years.

''Prayer has sustained our people in times of crisis, strengthened us in times of challenge and guided us through our daily lives since the first settlers came to this continent,'' President Reagan noted recently. He added that ''our forebears came not for gold, but mainly in search of God and the freedom to worship in their own way.''

The French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America 150 years ago , marveled at Americans because they understood that a free people must also be a religious people. ''Despotism may be able to do without faith,'' he wrote, ''but freedom cannot.''

How can we possibly hope to retain our freedom in future generations if we fail to allow our children to participate in voluntary prayers in their classrooms and learn that liberty springs from an abiding faith in the Creator?

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