Protecting the public schools

Public education faces enough challenge these days without injecting the contentious issue of prayer in the schools.It is therefore reassuring to see the US Supreme Court holding the line on the principle of separation of church and state. This week it refused to permit schoolchildren to hold religious meetings and prayer groups in classrooms after hours.

Briefly, the case was this: The Lubbock, Texas, school system wanted to give elementary and high school student religious groups the same use of classrooms as nonreligious groups. But a US circuit court of appeals declared that this ''equal access'' policy unconstitutionally advanced religion by implying ''recognition of religious activities and meetings as an integral part of the district's extracurricular program.'' By letting that ruling stand, the Supreme Court in effect said that schools and school facilities should serve the purpose of secular education.

Some parents may be displeased by what they perceive to be a hostile court attitude toward religion. Sen. Mark Hatfield, a lay preacher and highly respected Republican legislator, is also disappointed by the ruling and plans to introduce a bill to permit Bible studies and prayer groups in classrooms during off hours. Such reactions seem short-sighted, however. The high court's ruling should be viewed not as a putdown of religious practice but as a strengthening of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state which makes possible the greatest religious freedom for everyone.

Supporters of prayer and other religious activities in public schools sometimes seem to ignore the implications of their demands. Parents in a predominantly Baptist community, say, may favor Baptist religious studies in public school classrooms. But how would they feel if a group of local Muslims organized such studies and prayed for Ayatollah Khomeini in the classroom? Where there exists such a plurality of religious denominations and philosophical views, it seems only wise to avoid conflict and bigotry by simply keeping sectarian practices out of the public schools. Then every individual is protected to worship as he or she will.

Americans who value public education - and they are in the vast majority - can only decry the fact that school prayer has become a political issue which is being exploited to the detriment of the environment for learning. The public schools ought to be left alone. Their job is to bring up generations of young people to be educated, useful, humane citizens. Confronted as the schools are with massive financial, drug, and other problems - not to mention the growing educational demands of the computer age - they need economic and moral support, not political controversy.

The Supreme Court's consistent rulings on school prayer are especially welcome when the administration itself seems oblivious to the separation principle and the need for support of the public schools. For example, President Reagan and his congressional allies favor tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools, a questionable reform which would subsidize private schooling at the expense of the public sector. Also, as a result of presidential action in 1981 - lumping 28 separate federal aid-to-education programs into one omnibus measure - parochial and other independent schools now are reaping millions of dollars a year in federal assistance.

No one would deny the importance and contribution made by the nation's independent schools. But what of the public schools? Who is looking after theirm interests? The public can be thankful they at least have an ally in the Supreme Court.

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