A federal judge here has ruled that students have the right to form prayer groups that meet in public schools, dismissing objections from a local school board that such groups violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

The White House, the Justice Department and other federal judges requested copies today of the decision by U.S. District Court Judge William G. Nealon, who ruled that high school students have the right to meet for prayer and religious study during regularly scheduled activity periods in the same manner as other school clubs.

Nealon ruled on Thursday that students have the right to form such groups under the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Lisa Bender, a former Williamsport Area School District high school student, who initiated the suit in federal court last year, had tried to organize a club called "Petros," named after the Greek word for rock, which would use the activity period to read Scripture, pray, discuss religious issues and engage in related activities.

The case could open the door for students in other schools to pray or conduct other activities during regular school hours.

"This is not a case where school administrators have adopted a rule or policy requiring or even allowing students to meet for religious purposes," Nealon wrote.

Rather, in this case, "A number of students, acting voluntarily and free of outside influences, have requested permission to form a club and meet during the school's activity period on the same basis as other student organizations," he said.

Nealon ruled that the district could prohibit the students from exercising their right to free speech only if it could show that there was a "compelling state interest" in doing so.