The Senate last night stripped the school-prayer amendment from the Department of Education bill, saving the bill from almost certain death. The vote was 53 to 40.

The Senate shifted the language allowing "voluntary prayers in public schools" to a minor judicial system bill that Sen. Jesse Helms (D-N.C.) sponsor of the school-prayer amendment, said clearly was headed for oblivion.

Helms said bringing up the judicial system bill and letting senators add the prayer amendment to that on a 51-to-40 vote was a transparent effort to allow senators to go on record in favor of the amendment on a bill where it had little chance of passage, and then vote to take if off the president's bill to create a Department of Education, which almost certainly would have killed the bill.

"This is the surest way to kill the prayer amendment," said Helms, warning he will offer it repeatedly on others measures as well.

"The judicial system jurisdiction bill," Helms said, "does not have a chance of survival." He said House Judiciary Chairman Peter W. Rodino (D-N.J.) will bury the bill "so deep that 14 bulldozers couldn't scratch the surface."

The vote to take the prayer amendment off the education bill climaxed a day of bitter debate, in which Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and education bill floor manager Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.) repeatedly warned that the Helms amendment-originally attached last week on a surprise 47-to-37 vote-"would tend to kill the bill."

The Helms language would strip the federal courts and the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over state laws authorizing "voluntary prayer" in public schools. The Supreme Court outlawed school prayers, ruling that they breached the constitutional separation of church and state.

Helms said he found it unbelievable that Congress, which opens each day with prayer, would deny school children the right to participate voluntarily.

But Senate Judiciary Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said the amendment would mark the first time in 200 years "that the Congress has voted to exclude from jurisdiction of federal courts" subjects involving "individual rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution."

Kennedy said the matter went far beyond prayers alone-constituting an attach by Congress on a co-equal branch of government and an intrusion into the right of the courts to decide the constitutionality of laws and practices.

Helms retorted, "I want a senator to stand up and identify one child in the this country who has ever been harmed by voluntary prayer in the public schools."

The strategy of bringing up another, relatively minor, bill to carry the Helms amendment so senators could safely vote to take it off the president's Department of Education measure was worked out by Byrd. Byrd himself voted for the Helms amendment last week and he voted to attach it to the judicial bill, to which, he contended, it was more relevant. That bill allows the Supreme Court to decline to take certain cases now mandatory for it to consider.

At least 12 senators who originally voted last week to attach the Helms language to the education bill, and yesterday to the minor judicial bill, turned around last night and voted to strip it from the education bill: Lloyd Bensten (D-Tex.), Byrd, Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), Dennis Deconcini (D-Ariz.), David Durenberger (D-Minn.), Walter Huddleston (D-Ky.), Sam Nunn (D-ga.), Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.), Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), and Dick Stone (D-Fla.).

In a related development, the House Government Operations legislation subcommittee approved the Department of Education bill yesterday morning by voice vote.