Praying in school

Children's prayers are too important to become a political football. Not that legislators cannot legitimately challenge the federal and state court rulings against prayer programs in the public schools through the constitutional amendment process. Yet there are continuing congressional efforts to weaken the separation of church and state by means short of that process.

In the latest development the Senate has now joined the House of Representatives in tacking a school prayer amendment onto an appropriations bill. It is a largely symbolic step. It prohibits the Justice Department's use of federal funds to prevent the implementation of programs of voluntary prayer - which the department has not been doing anyway. But the amendment could encourage states to try more of the ''voluntary'' prayer programs that so far have been found unconstitutional in line with the Supreme Court's 1962 ruling against government-sponsored devotions in the schools. Senator Weicker promises a filibuster against the measure, and its demise would be welcome.

The senator's own defeated alternative amendment would have been an improvement. It would have banned Justice Department action only against ''constitutional programs,'' in effect reaffirming the status quo.

But no new law is necessary to protect the right to genuine voluntary prayer - the prayer between an individual and God. This individual voluntary prayer has been ruled constitutional. Even if it had not, no government could invade the realm of thought in which prayer can be invoked to meet every human need, whether learning math or solving any other problem.

Here is where it is so essential to honor the diversity of America, ensuring each child's freedom from official pressures against the individual practice and belief fostered by home and religion. Such pressures could be heightened by school prayer programs, however ''voluntary.'' These also risk the promotion of some generalized and diluted sort of civil religion, chipping away once again at that wall between church and state which is so necessary to America's precious religious liberty. Thus each stand for this constitutional principle must be applauded, whether by a senator now, the Massachusetts court that held the line last year, or voices in the future contending with what appears to be a growing tendency in the other direction.

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