Whether Washington is reacting to the heat of the summer or to the heat of the election campaign isn't clear. But we wonder whether Congress and the White House know just what they are getting into with the latest pieces of classroom legislation - approving ''equal access'' and periods of silent prayer.
It can be better not to act at all than to pass legislation that is not needed or that derives from partisan competition for the traditional-values mantle.
We, unsurprisingly, think that prayer is a very good thing. So is religious fellowship. But making official room for religion in schools is not properly a government function. In the cases at hand, Washington may simply be opening itself to another decade of lawsuits over nonreligious free-speech issues that may impose greater burdens on public school officials and personnel.
The bill for silent school prayer passed by the House was improved under the leadership of moderate Republicans, who substituted language that directed public school districts to offer time for silent voluntary prayer, successfully defeating a coercive version that would have cut off federal funds to schools that prevented students from praying aloud. Proponents of the voluntary silent prayer measure may argue that it might head off a proposed school-prayer constitutional amendment, such as the Senate defeated last March. But it does put school administrators and teachers into a position of having to make a judgment call on the place, timing, and duration of such ''moments.'' And it seems superfluous when individual students can at any moment now pray silently.
The ''equal access'' legislation, also passed by the House last week and ready for President Reagan's signature, could prove far more troublesome. The measure would allow student religious groups the same kind of access to classroom use, before and after school hours, as is now afforded secular activities like sports, music, and literary clubs. But not only religious-oriented activities would be granted equal access. So would student groups that would organize under political, protest, life-style, and other headings. Legislation intended to compel public schools to extend speech freedom to religious groups in off-school hours would also guarantee equal access to anti-religious, anti-establishment gatherings.
The US mood is now quiet. But sharp divisions over an unpopular war, minority rights, and generational outlook are recent enough to serve as warnings. Schools should not be made a battleground for civil, social, and political issues, at the risk of distraction from the schools' primary role of education. And in an era of greater regard for religious diversity, Washington should not unwisely heighten public tension over religion.