FOR ALL its cultural and commercial aspects, the holiday season now getting underway is essentially religious. Many families will attend church services today, and more will offer prayers of thanksgiving at the dinner table. Hanukah and Christmas are ahead, and candles will be lit, Masses said and religious images and articles displayed without fear of offending neighbors of another religion orfriends who are nonbelievers. For almost half a million Americans who are expected to be serving in the Persian Gulf, however, celebrating this aspect of the holiday season will be more complicated.

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country that permits no religious observances other than its own. Churches of other faiths are not allowed in the kingdom, and there is no tolerance of religious practices or even public displays of the symbols of faiths other than the official one. Obviously this has presented problems for the American military, which is wary of offending Saudi sensibilities yet properly concerned about the rights of American service men and women. Whether one agrees or not with arrangements that have been made concerning the conduct of women in the armed forces, or the food and drink, entertainment and reading material available to the troops, these seem to us to be of a different character from restrictions that might interfere with religious practice.

In order to avoid giving offense, for example, American chaplains -- now called morale officers or spiritual counselors -- have been told not to wear their insignia outside U.S. facilities. It goes without saying that they will not perform religious services anywhere else. Early this fall, it had been reported that Bibles could not be sent in quantity to the troops, though individually addressed packages would be delivered. This policy appears to have been changed, and the Gideon Society is now shipping the text in bulk. The Pentagon has assured the public that chaplains -- Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish -- are with the forces and that religious services are held regularly, but only in American facilities. Still, such services are technically against the law in Saudi Arabia, and the media are discouraged from reporting on or filming the observances.

All this bears careful watching. Saudi Arabia has its own culture, standards and strongly held religious beliefs, and it stands in a special place in the Moslem world. The United States does not seek to challenge any of this but must insist that Americans in the military be protected in the full exercise of their religions. That constitutional right travels with the troops and must be respected wherever they serve.