American schools are prohibited from forcing a child to pray in class. But with a shortwave radio, that same child can tune in to prayers and religious programs broadcast on the U.S. government's own Voice of America radio network.

On Sunday mornings, Soviet children and adults can turn on Voice of America and pick up a Russian Orthodox liturgy delivered by a VOA-paid priest and occasionally recorded at the VOA studio in Washington, when a church is not convenient.

Why is one expression of faith under a government roof approved and another forbidden? Religion and the U.S. Constitution add up to incongruities that are not easily explained.

VOA is an independent government agency that reports only to the president. Its mission is to promote better understanding of the United States by broadcasting American programming around the world in 42 languages. Listeners, including those in communist countries, tune in on shortwave radios. VOA's charter says it is supposed to disseminate a "balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions."

A bit of the VOA broadcast day includes religious broadcasting. But, says acting VOA director Robert Barry, "We do not propagate faith . . . . we report on it as a part of American life."

When is a VOA program a reflection of American life and when is it outright religion? One VOA insider told our reporter Frank Byrt that some program directors have wide latitude with program content. The "captive" audience in communist countries is not in a position to send its feedback, and that audience probably is not worried about constitutional issues, either. So the program directors do not hear many complaints.

The Russian Language Service, VOA's largest, has an audience of 160 million and an annual budget of $17 million. We saw a translated version of the current Russian language broadcast schedule. Seven hours out of 112 in a week are dedicated to religious-oriented programming.

The line between reporting on religion and preaching it may possibly be crossed in the Sunday liturgy program, hosted by a Russian Orthodox priest. An administrator assured us that the priest is a writer and editor paid by VOA to cover religious subjects. On occasion, when budget constraints kept VOA from recording a slice of American life -- a liturgy program in a Russian Orthodox church -- the writer/editor has reverted to priest and read prayers over the airwaves.

Other religions receive coverage on VOA, but Russian Orthodoxy and Judaism make up the bulk of the programming. The services must come as a breath of fresh air to believers who, as we have reported in the past, are persecuted in the Soviet Union. But the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits state "aid to religion under the guise of assisting some of its citizens in the free exercise of their religion," in the words of a 1973 Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court has never addressed the issue of religious broadcasts on government stations.

VOA officials don't think they have a legal problem. "We don't feel any contradiction {exists} between . . . constitutional law and the VOA policy of broadcasting," Barry said.