THE U.S. COURT of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has handed down a jarring decision affirming the right of students to pray publicly at school-related events such as assemblies, football games and graduation ceremonies. Technically, the court only narrowed the scope of an injunction against an Alabama law authorizing such prayer. But the effect of the decision is potentially quite broad. It holds that as long as prayer is not encouraged by school authorities and is not proselytizing or sectarian, it is as protected as any non-religious student speech -- even at compulsory school events. The decision raises the prospect of prayers being delivered over school public address systems or at official functions to students to whom such prayer is an unwanted religious imposition. Given everything the Supreme Court has said on the issue of prayer in schools, it seems wrong.

The Supreme Court never has actually addressed the specific question of student-initiated prayer in the absence of any official sponsorship. The closest it has come was the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, in which it held that a school board could not constitutionally invite a rabbi to deliver a prayer at a graduation. The 11th Circuit contends that the current case is different, since it does not involve the schools' sponsoring prayer, merely tolerating it as it would any other speech. To disallow students to pray publicly would be, the judges held, unconstitutional discrimination against religious speech.

It is certainly true that some schools, in an effort to keep religion out of schools, have infringed on perfectly acceptable student religious expression. But the 11th Circuit's holding fails to distinguish adequately between the coercive potential of private religious expression taking place in schools and public devotion in the context of official school functions. Indeed, permitting religious addresses by students to their fellows at school events is an endorsement hard to distinguish in practical terms from the sort of overt sponsorship that the high court has struck down.

To the child subjected to prayers that offend her conscience at a mandatory school event, it is of little consequence whether the student delivering that prayer is doing so at the behest of the school district or merely with its toleration. And while it is true that the case of student-initiated prayer poses a less stark constitutional problem than school-initiated prayers do, the relevant facts must be that the speech is being imposed upon students using public resources and -- when part of a graduation ceremony or other function -- the stamp of the school's official program.

There is probably room to clarify the parameters of students' religious speech rights in the school setting, but the 11th Circuit's ruling goes way too far.