''Separate but equal,'' ''balanced treatment,'' ''equal access'' - all these terms are used to indicate fairness and equity. But each has been misused by extremist advocates with private agendas to reinforce racially segregated schools; infuse fundamentalist theories of creation into the curriculum; and now to attempt to open the door to religious proselytizing in public schools.
Fortunately, courts and lawmakers have been fairly alert to masked motives and have rejected these concepts as unfair and inequitable - out of sync with constitutional protections for the individual. Such vigilance must continue since interest groups will almost certainly keep trying to inject the religious factor into public education. If they succeed, not only education will be ill-served, so will religion.
In its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the US Supreme Court struck down school integration, which had been based on the rationale that blacks and other minorities could be provided quality education in separate schools. The court flatly rejected the concept that ''separate'' could in any way be considered ''equal.'' This paved the way for wholesale mixing of blacks and whites in the nation's classrooms. And although de facto segregation (that caused by housing patterns) continues in many parts of the US, the standard now is clear.
The battle over ''balanced treatment'' for evolution and ''creation science'' in the classroom is still being waged. In recent years, however, state and federal courts have found constitutional and other grounds for overturning local edicts mandating equal time for both ideas. For instance, in 1982 federal judge William Overton, holding that creationism vs. evolution ''is simply contrived dualism which has no scientific basis or legitimate educational purpose,'' struck down the so-called ''balanced treatment law'' in Arkansas.
More recently, the state school board in Texas, under pressure from civil liberties groups, repealed what amounted to a 10-year anti-evolution/pro-creationism rule, which dictated content in biology textbooks. The move has national significance, since the Lone Star State is the nation's largest purchaser of classroom texts - and publishers tend to standardize material using Texas guidelines.
Now, after defeat of a constitutional amendment that would have authorized prayer in schools, fundamentalists are making an effort to give student religious groups ''equal access'' to school facilities. A measure along these lines narrowly failed to get a required two-thirds approval in the House last week. However, a Senate version may still surface.
In an editorial, the Washington Post aptly characterized the bill as ''nothing more or less than a cynically labeled attempt to allow majority religious groups to evangelize and proselytize inside school buildings during the school day.''
Naturally the bill posed serious risks to constitutional guarantees of separation between church and state. It could have unlocked school doors to those bent on religious conversion of students.
The religious community has been split over the idea. The National Council of Churches advocates ''access'' in terms of freedom of religious speech, while the American Jewish Committee warns against schools' ''entanglement with religion.''
In all three of these issues, the point is that labeling something ''balanced'' or ''equal'' doesn't necessarily make it so.
Youngsters should certainly be encouraged to embrace religious values and study. However, this kind of awareness of man and the universe comes from prayer and unfoldment - nurtured in the home and nourished in Sunday school and church. Public school teachers should not be placed in the uncomfortable position of arbitrating something that is not within their province or ability to do.