In a debate over school prayer the other day, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) referred to Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) as "the senator from B'nai B'rith" which is not a state, but a Jewish fraternal organization. Metzenbaum, knowing an anti-Semitic remark when he hears one, stiffened and corrected Hollings: "I am the senator from Ohio," to which Hollings said, yes, and then proffered all kinds of apologies, forgetting, it seems, that a bigoted remark, like a dare, is something you can not take back.

Now, one anti-Semitic remark does not an anti-Semite make and it would be unfair to Hollings, not to mention all of those who really work at their anti-Semitism, to label him one. What he is, at best, is a tad insensitive. In one stroke, though, he crystallized what the school prayer debate is really about.

It is about understanding and respecting the rights and the sensitivities of minorities. What Hollings, for instance, characterized as a joke, Metzenbaum took as an insult. If this could happen to two United States senators, imagine then the feeling of some kid -- some kid who practices a minority religion -- being put into a position where he either has to pray with the majority or make something of a spectacle of himself by asking to be excused.TT his is something that proponents of T voluntary school prayer do not understand or do not care about. There is simply nothing voluntary about it. When you're 8 years old and everyone around you bows their heads, you bow your head. When everyone is mumbling words, you mumble words. When they pause for a moment of silence you do the same. And you do this not because you want to, but because you do not want to make a spectacle of yourself. What 8-year-old is going to raise his or her hand and say to the teacher, "I have a constitutional right to be excused and I would like at this moment to do so"?

At any given time and any given place, any one of us could be in that position. And then any one of us could be made to feel uncomfortable. This is something that does not trouble proponents of school prayer. They would like to impose their religion on us all. They would like to be universal parents, telling our kids when to pray and even how to pray. They want us to start the day with one.

Good. Start the day with a prayer if you wish. But start it at home. Why this compulsion to have it done at school? Why is there this urge to impose on a school system a secular religion -- some sort of non-offensive prayer? There can be no such thing. Not to an agnostic. Not to an atheist. Not to someone who looks around and figures out what the dominant religious belief is, and then concludes that this -- this belief -- is what the prayer is all about.TT here can be no agreement on these T matters. This is why we have churches -- countless churches for countless religions and sects. They are wonderful places to pray. So is the home. It is not necessary for government to embrace religion, to lock arms with it so that some kid has to assert himself in a religious sense, and proclaim his religous identity or that of his parents, if he wants out.

None of this would be a problem if we all were one religion, but we are not. Some of us, in fact, have no religion at all. It is these differences that must be respected. It is the presumption of a single, national religion or belief in religion that must be rebutted -- even the presumption that this would be a good thing. What happened in the Senate the other day is what would happen every day in countless classrooms. People would be singled out on the basis of their religion -- and held, as Metzenbaum was, accountable for it.

Maybe some good will come out of it. Maybe Hollings will now understand what it is like to stand in the shoes of a member of a minority religion. To Metzenbaum, the joke was no joke, just like voluntary is sometimes not voluntary and a prayer is something else entirely -- government telling you how to practise religion. If Hollings appreciates this, he will not need to apologize. He will understand why the Founding Fathers wisely separated government from religion. We can only hope -- and pray. But not in school, please -- not in school.