THE AUDIENCE at a Calvert County high school graduation was wrong to have interjected religious worship into the county's secular educational life. That is what happened this week when thousands in the audience, faced with a lawful school ban on prayer and with advice from the state attorney general's office to drop a formal prayer from the ceremony, ignored the restrictions and recited the Lord's Prayer. It was a defiant act, an incursion on the freedom of conscience of others and a prescription for the kind of community divisiveness that the Supreme Court's school prayer decision aimed to avoid.

That there was discord was evident from the treatment of Nick Becker, the student who had successfully opposed the inclusion of formal prayer as part of the graduation ceremony. Mr. Becker walked out of the hall in protest once the mass spontaneous prayer began. When he tried to return to the ceremony to collect his diploma, he was detained in a squad car and threatened with arrest by state police. He was also prevented from attending a graduation party for which he'd already purchased a ticket because he didn't participate in the graduation ceremony -- to which he was prevented from returning; school officials say his money will be refunded.

State police Lt. George McKeon defended the decision to prevent Mr. Becker from reentering the hall. "We didn't want [him] to disrupt the ceremony." But the wrong party is being fingered.

The real disruption began earlier, when reportedly half of the audience of 4,000 chose to initiate an act of religious worship during a secular public ceremony. Had they used the occasion for 30 seconds of reflection, as the speaker had requested or, better yet, elected not to infuse the graduation ceremony with the observance of their particular religious faith, this unfortunate turn of events would not have occurred.

In this case, however, a determined majority, showing little regard for the rights or convictions of anyone else, decided to do in Northern High School what is best inculcated in the home or in places consecrated to religion. "The school administration did the legal thing and complied with the law," said Calvert County Commissioners President Linda Kelley, who joined in the recitation. "But the audience," she boasted, "took this one over." That, however, makes it no less of an uncivil and intolerant act.