Some of the same people who are adamantly opposed to prayer in the public schools think it might be a good idea to teach ethics in law school. Does it make sense to deny religious training to students who are young enough for training to make a permanent difference and to urge the teaching of morality to graduate students, for whom it is close to being too late?

Isn't their more logic to the biblical advice to "train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it"?

Of course there is; hardly anyone believes otherwise. Then what is the source of the controversy that clearly exists?

Two things, I believe. The first is the confusion between the teaching of morals and ethics, on the one hand, and the inculcation of religion (which clearly involves moral and ethical principles) on the other. The second is that some of us, like some of the primitive artists, insist on seeing children as miniature adults.

The prayer-in-school advocates are trying to deal with an obvious decline in general morality, a trend reflected in personal violence, sexual promiscuity, political corruption--the whole hell-in-a-handbasket litany. Since these trends don't exist among the pious, they reason, the remedy lies in a renewal of piety. Prayer in the schools, they believe, would get the children's mind back on the Almighty. "Train up a child . . ."

The problem is the conflict between governmentally sanctioned prayer and the constitutional proscription against establishment of religion. Those whose religious beliefs are unorthodox see public- school prayers as coercive. Those who see morality as religion-based see opposition to school prayers as boosting the trend toward immorality.

But couldn't the two factions agree on the usefulness of teaching morality and ethical behavior in school? Perhaps. But some of those who oppose public school prayers also believe that morality is a relative thing. Actions that would clearly be wrong in one context may be acceptable in another. Thus, they reason, children should not be taught hard-and-fast rules of behavior but rather helped to think through ethical problems, recognizing that many of life's choices cannot be reduced to simple right or wrong.

But children aren't small adults, and it is a mistake to treat them as though they are. It seems to me proper for the schools (and churches and families) to teach children basic ethical precepts--and the moral blacks and whites--even while recognizing that as adults they will have to spend a lot of time dealing with shades of gray.

It's all very well to understand that an accomplished composer (the adult) can sometimes make good use of dissonance and atonality. But the wise music teacher will make sure that a beginner (the child) absorbs the basics of harmony.

Those who urge the teaching of law school ethics understand the importance of basic moral harmony. But they make a mistake in supposing that it is best taught after years of laissez-faire relativism.

My own view is that prescribed prayers (or even prescribed times for prayer) have no place in public schools. But it seems equally plain to me that children need to be taught such things as right and wrong, patriotism, societal values and respect for the person and property of others as though they were absolutes. The grays of "situational ethics" will come soon enough.

Some things are learned early or not at all.