IT was useful for the full Senate to have expressed itself on school prayer. That body now has shown conclusively that it rejects the well-intentioned but unwise efforts to legislate a time in the school day for voluntary prayer.
The Senate's decision is proper. Passing a constitutional amendment on school prayer would have breached the important separation of church and state. In addition, any prayer selected for classroom use either would have favored one religious view over others or would have been so watered down as to have lost its spiritual thrust.
Finally, as we have noted before, no new prayer law is necessary. Every individual already has the right to pray silently anywhere, including in school.
That opponents of the prayer issue permitted it to come to a vote at all, instead of filibustering, showed how confident they had become of victory. The vote was 56 to 44 in favor, 11 votes short of the two-thirds required for a constitutional amendment.
As often happens with close and controversial votes, the actual strength of the opposition may have been slightly larger. A few senators who might have been expected to oppose the measure if their ballots were really needed wound up voting in its favor, a position likely to be helpful in a close reelection effort.
That all 100 senators voted for the first time in months showed how important it was to them to have their views recorded.
For the Senate the vote means it now can get on to other issues.
For supporters of school prayer it means that other ways must be sought to achieve their ends if, as promised, they intend to continue their effort. One possibility is that they will seek refuge in the courts. Now moving through the court system are suits that would permit voluntary silent prayer in schools.
For opponents of the prayer proposals, the familiar need for vigilance remains. It now seems improbable that Congress would approve in the near future a constitutional amendment to permit audible school prayer. Yet proponents may make renewed efforts to obtain a time in the school day for voluntary silent prayer, not only through court challenges but also in Congress or state legislatures.
In recent weeks it has become known that despite the existing Supreme Court ban on audible school prayers, some schools continue to conduct them. This practice is likely to continue until objecting parents protest to their school department or community government, or through court suit.