"I don't want you or any other government official to write my prayers," the clergyman wrote his congressman.

"And my church is just as emphatic on this matter as I am," added the Rev. C. E. Bradford, vice president of the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventists General Conference.

The letter, which Bradford sent to all members of Congress, is part of a drive by mainline Protestant and Jewish groups to head off federal legislation to restore prayer in public school classrooms.

The anti-school prayer forces were caught off guard a few weeks ago by a new push, spearheaded by TV evangelists, to pass legislation aimed at circumventing the Supreme Court's 18-year-old-ban on school prayer.

A measure, introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and passed by the Senate a year ago, would remove state laws on school prayer from review by the federal courts. A discharge petition to force a House version of the bill out of committee has about 170 of the required 218 signatures, in part because of the new pressure by pro-school-prayer forces.

Now church and synagogue groups that oppose prayer in public school are countering with their own campaign to generate letters from congressional constituents and direct lobbying efforts.

At a press conference last week, the Rev. Dr. Dean Kelley of the National Council of Churches cast the perennial battle over school prayers as a struggle between organized religious communities and "self-appointed religious leaders in the electronic media."

Kelley said that with the exception of the Greek Orthodox Church and the National Association of Evangelicals, "all major religious bodies" that have taken stands on the issue in their national assemblies have supported the Supreme Court decision. The Roman Catholic hierarchy has taken no stand on the present controversy.

Dr. Porter Routh, acting head of the Baptist Committee on Public Affairs, pointed out that the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant body, earlier this month reaffirmed its opposition to "government-sponsored religious exercises in public schools."

Countering his opponents' arguments that spiritual life in the nation has deteriorated since the court's decision, Routh said: "If we think prayer is going to be brought back by any government legislation, we're heading up the wrong tree."

Marvin Rappaport of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith called the Helms bill "a back-door effort to amend the Constitution" by removing a specific area of legislation from the purview of the Supreme Court. "The way in which this attempt is being made is itself unconstitutional," he said.

The Rev. William Wyler of the Washington office of the Episcopal Church, noted that the first religious service in the Jamestown colony in 1607 included Anglican prayers, but added: "Far be it from us to impress that tradition on the school children of our country today . . . We feel the focus of religious piety is not the public school, but the home, the mosque, the synagogue or the church."