Two decades ago, a political cartoon appeared in a national magazine. It depicted a group of teen-age girls toting school books and apparently heading for class. ''I don't care if it is against the law,'' said one. ''I'm going to pray before I take this test.''
When the US Supreme Court first decided that school prayer was in violation of the Constitution's First Amendment, those opposed to the decision accused the court of trying to stifle religion and counter the spiritual and moral values taught in many homes.
The controversy has burned for more than 20 years. And a spate of federal and state court rulings banning public aid to parochial schools, outlawing religious meetings on high school and college campuses, and denying municipal sponsorship to community Christmas observances have only added fuel to it.
Yet these are disputes that finally should be laid to rest. The courts have been right on the major church and state issues, as a consideration of their decisions will show. But first let's look at the current furor.
School prayer and public financial aid to private (including parochial) schools have become key planks for the political right. President Reagan talks about putting ''God back into the schools.'' His administration is behind a proposed constitutional amendment to permit voluntary prayer in public schools. It is also pushing federal legislation which would allow parents of private and parochial school children tuition tax credits. The so-called religious New Right believes that restoration of prayer in the schools and state-authorized religion in the community (together with imposition of the death penalty, and the abolition of abortion) will help set the nation back on the correct path.
Currently the US Supreme Court is looking at a case which symbolizes such concerns. It involves a life-sized nativity scene erected for the past 40 years by the city of Pawtucket, R.I. Two lower courts have already ruled that the display is in violation of constitutional separation of church and state guarantees. But city officials insist that Christmas symbolism is not inherently religious in nature but part of the American heritage. And the Reagan administration agrees with them.
The critics mounting these frontal assaults on the wall of separation between church and state represent the views of a wide segment of Americans. They feel that the court decisions have isolated religion from the public sector. They say these policies are at least indirectly responsible for a general decline in moral values and a weakening of family traditions. They are vitally - and correctly - concerned about these things.
Unfortunately, though, these critics of the courts have missed the point - on all counts.
First, the Constitution (as interpreted by the courts) doesn't retard religion. Quite the opposite. By forbidding Congress from making any law ''respecting an establishment of religion,'' it protects the right of the individual to hold those religious values dictated by conscience without government interference. The First Amendment takes a neutral position. It neither promotes nor inhibits religion. And by so doing, it protects the right of minorities as well as majorities.
This does not mean that religion is ostracized from the public sector. By no means is it. The nation's Founding Fathers had strong religious values. They didn't hesitate to refer to God in public life - but not in denominational terms. References to deity are prominent in the oath of office and the pledge of allegiance. And, although challenged on this issue, the US Supreme Court has upheld the right of state legislatures to employ chaplains to open their sessions.
Second, no single prayer will satisfy the beliefs of every youngster in school. And even a voluntary ''moment of silence'' (as is now being suggested in some legislation) would have the effect of curricularizing within the public sector what should be a private, personal, and inspired experience. And this is what the court has said: Praying or reading the Bible in school isn't wrong - if done privately and individually and without government sponsorship. That's the way it should be.
Third, on parochaid, or government subsidies to private education: In most instances the courts have said that federal or state funds filtering directly or indirectly into private education could have the effect of ''advancing'' religion - which the Constitution forbids. They are right. (The Supreme Court did give some ground last year in a Minnesota case allowing tuition tax credits to parents of youngsters in both public and private schools). Parochaid, would in effect be filtered almost exclusively to church-related schools and those who attend them. These schools are an important part of the American educational tradition. But attendance is by choice. Support must come from the private sector.
Fourth, the Pawtucket case still awaits a ruling. But defeat for the town would not be a defeat for religion. Christmas should be embodied in spiritual and religious values. Government sponsorship, by its very nature, would actually defeat this purpose. Let creches remain the religious expression of devoted groups or individuals and not become the secularized symbols of folk festivals.
Inevitably legal and legislative decisions will continue to reinterpret the meaning of separation of church and state. And new political pressures and societal demands may help lobby for turning a once solid wall of separation to a more porous one. But if the courts continue to act as wisely and as cautiously, on behalf of religious freedom, as they usually have in the past, the entire fortress won't come tumbling down.