A federal judge in New Jersey has ruled that Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a religious practice and therefore cannot be taught in federally funded public school programs.

U.S. District Court Judge H. Curtis Meanor in Newark held that the TM program, also called the Science of Creative Intelligence, violates the separation of church and state mandated by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendement.

Meanor's 78-page opinion upheld the contention of the plaintiffs, who challenged the teaching of TM in five Newark area high schools, funded by a $40,812 grant from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The case was brought by a coalition of parents, conservative Christian clergy and religious libertarians.

The decision is expected to have implications for other federally funded programs to teach TM in prisons and penitentaries as well as schools.

Albert Menendez of Americans United, a religious libertarian group that was a part of the coalition that brought the suit, maintained that "close to $500,000 in federal funds" were allocated a year ago to such programs.

Transcendental Meditation was popularized in this country by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a Hindu monk. His followers insist that the practice, which consists of sitting in silence twice a day and repeating a mantra, or Sanskrit word for 20 minutes is devoid of religious overtones.

Meanor disagreed. He pointed out that the students enrolled in the TM courses were required to be initiated into the practice in a "puja" ceremony at TM centers apart from the schools.

At such ceremonies, Meanor pointed out, students entered barefoot inot "incense-filled rooms" and worshipped Sri Guru Dev, an Indian mystic who died 20 years ago.

Since its introduction to this country in 1959, TM has been packaged and marketed to hundreds of thousands of tranquility seeking Americans, from allenated college dropouts to top-ranking sports figures and business leaders.

In the past couple of years, however, the number of new initiates has dropped sharply.

Officials of the TM movement, both here and at the national headquarters in California declined to comment on the court decision until they have received a copy of Meanor's findings.