AT THE PHINEAS Bates School in Boston, a long time ago, we started every day with what you might call prayer.

Right after the pledge of allegiance, which, by the way, didn't include "under God" then, Miss Allen, who wore her hair in a bun and, if I remember rightly, a watch pinned to her neat wool vest, would read to us 6- and 7-year-olds a verse or two from the Old Testament. It was the King James version, before the revisionists had pulverized it into blandness. Then we would sing a hymn, often one of the compositions of John Wesley.

I cannot claim that those gorgeous words from the prophets and the psalmists ever influenced my prose style. But the hymns have served me well. Being in a trade whose members are given to singing after supper, I have found status in being able to sail through the last lines of "O Worship the King" -- "pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise" -- while others around me are faking it.

I mention this because the Supreme Court, in one of those several recent decisions which have the lawyers pounding their heads and their books, ruled that prayer in the state legislature of Nebraska is constitutional.

In its decision on the legislature's right to retain a paid Presbyterian chaplain to open its session with prayer, the justices do not address what to me is a screaming contradiction: Why are Nebraska legislators observing the Constitution as their chaplain prays over them while we scholars at the Phineas Bates, listening to Miss Allen, were, it turned out later, breaking the law?

According to a 1963 Supreme Court decision, "reading of the Bible . . . under direction of the local board of education" is unconstitutional.


This most intriguing question is merely touched on in a footnote in the dissent, in which it is stated that "legislators are adults, 'presumably not readily susceptible to . . . peer pressure.' " Does this mean that lawmakers, who, many people think, are susceptible to almost everything, are still better able to fight off the baneful effects of worship than little children?

Maybe that's not what the court meant to say, but since it didn't say anything else on this central point, it makes you wonder if someone might come up with anti-prayer shots, if prayer ever gets back into the public schools.

None of this means that I stand with Ronald Reagan in believing that the restoration would be the salvation of the public schools. I happen to think that they need a great deal more. But I must confess I enjoyed that little interval every morning. It meant a slight delay in the evil hour when we would come to arithmetic and the black mysteries of the multiplication tables -- later to be replaced by the grisly horrors of algebra -- and I keep thinking if prayer won't hurt Nebraska legislators, it wouldn't hurt 6-year-olds.

I have to say that my schoolmates and I seemed to have withstood whatever harm was done us by the King James version and our inadvertent violation of the Constitution.

We went on to survive a Depression, fight a world war, witness the dawn of the nuclear age and to bring up children of their own in commendable fashion. We contributed no spectacular miscreants to "the fabric of society" which Chief Justice Berger sonormously refers to several times in his majority decision.

I have no intention of getting into a futile argument about the relative spiritual needs of schoolchildren and lawmakers: State legislators are traditionally tempted to throw asphalt contracts to their pals; small children are often tempted to throw spitballs at each other. Everyone, in my opinion, needs help.

But it is the heart of Justice Berger's reasoning which I find most flawed. To me, all it does is buttress the case for prayer in school.

He says, "The practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society." He cites the fact that the Continental Congress did so as proof positive of "the force of long tradition."

Not so fast, Mr. Chief Justice.

The first public school in this country was Boston Latin School, which was founded in 1635. Long before the Continental Congress, was ever dreamed of, Boston Latin was opening its sessions with prayer, and lots of it, you better believe.

God always came first in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Caesar, I found out later to my sorrow, while attending Girls' Latin School, was never far behind. Centuries later, his indigestible "Commentary on the Gallic Wars" was still the daily fare.

In other words, I dissent from the Nebraska decision, not only on its logic but on its history. Next case, please.