IN EVERY ONE of the last 17 years, an effort of one kind or another has been made on Capitol Hill to put prayer back into the public schools. This year, an especially strong push has been made by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who has persuaded the Senate to pass a proposal that purports to strip the Supreme Court of the power to hear cases involving "voluntary" prayer. Its passage appears to have been an electionoriented gimmick; several senators who know better voted for it in the belief that the proposal will be quietly buried in the House. It should be, partly because it is of doubtful constitutionality and its enactment would create a horrendous precedent, but mostly because its purpose is fundamentally wrong.

The Supreme Court was right in 1962 when it ruled that daily recitation of a "nondenominational" prayer in the public schools violates the First Amendment. It was right the following year when it said that daily Bible reading and devotional exercises have no place in the public schools of nation that has barred the establishment of religion and guaranteed to all the right to worship, or not worship, as they see fit. Now Sen. Helms says, show me a child "who has ever been harmed by voluntary prayer in the public schools." But what kind of a standard is that? It is an irrelevant test. Harm (or help) to a child who has prayed is not the issue. The issue is one of keeping faith with the Constitution.

The strangest aspect of this (and every) year's drive to restore "voluntary" prayer to the schools is that truly voluntary prayers have never been expelled. No student and no teacher is forbidden, under the courths rulings, to say a private prayer any time he or she wants to. What is forbidden is that scene in which the teacher tells the students to "voluntarily" bow their heads and pray together.

Schools, like any other place, are appropriate for personal, private prayer. They are inappropriate for group exercises that have the sole purpose of imparting to student beliefs that the Constitution, and the basic principles of the nation, say should be imparted at home or in a house of worship.