The trouble with busing for the purposes of integration, or as its opponents would have it, forced busing for the sake of miscegenation, is that the lie overwhelmed the truth. Politicians talked of busing as if it were some sort of social experiment in which the courts decided, for no discernible reason, that it would be a good idea to bus kids halfway across town while their parents pulled their hair out in rage. That was the lie.

The truth was that the courts only ordered busing as a last resort. They ordered it only after school boards and politicians had purposely segregated the school system, after they had built schools and drawn boundaries so that whites and blacks would not -- no matter what the Constitution said -- go to school together. That was when courts stepped in. They ordered busing when there was no other way to integrate a school system that had been purposely segregated in violation of the law.

Now we have something similar happening when it comes to school prayer. As with busing, the issue has fallen into the hands of unscrupulous politicians who talk of taking God out of the classroom or some such nonsense. An example of that sort of thinking comes not from a politician, but from a cartoonist for the Tampa Tribune, Wayne Stayskal. For Thanksgiving, he showed a group of Pilgrims on the beach at Plymouth, being warned by a policeman that praying is not permitted: "Hey, no praying here . . . This is a public beach!" Even for a cartoonist, this is sheer nonsense, but it reflects the apparently widely held view that the courts have banished prayer.

This, of course, has been President Reagan's theme for some time now, and he has been as wrong on this as he was when he lectured Charlotte, N.C., on the evils of busing, choosing a city where busing works and works well. From time to time, he cites the case of some school kid who is ordered not to pray and implies that this or something like it is the intent of the courts and the evil liberals at the ACLU who brought suit. It's possible that from time to time something like that does happen, but if it does it's because someone got the law wrong, not right. The president, of all people, ought to know that.

Like busing, though, school prayer and the role of religion in general are discussed as if nothing preceded the controversy -- as if there is no history to it. In the case of school prayer, there happens to be a history of kids being compelled to say prayers, of prayers organized by the school, of minority kids being made to feel unwelcome, pressured -- different.

It is approximately for these reasons that the courts told the schools to get out of the prayer business, saying that the Constitution forbids the government to either interfere with or promote religion. There is nothing in the decision that would stop some kid from praying on his or her own time. If there were, it would not only be outrageous, it would be unconstitutional.

As with busing, the reason for the various court decisions regarding prayer has been lost. Truth has been overwhelmed by a lie. And politicians, from the president on down, discuss the prayer issue as if the courts, with nothing to do on a slow day, decided to monkey with religion. That's cheap politics, of course, but it's something worse than that. It's yet another example of that lowest of low blows: blaming the victim.

In the case of busing, organizations such as the NAACP that for years have been fighting school segregation get blamed when their opponents' intransigence finally compels a busing order. In other words, those who only insist that the law be obeyed get blamed for a remedy forced on the courts by those who broke the law in the first place.

In school prayer, it works pretty much the same way. Those who wanted only to protect the rights of kids who either did not want to pray or did not like the wording of the particular prayer are being blamed for kicking God out of school and for banning prayer everywhere -- from New England beaches to the hallways of America's schools.

Thanks to political expediency, things get turned upside down. In both busing and school prayer, the majority is made out to be the victim, and the real victim, the minority, is made to appear the oppressor. That's precisely what the majority wants to hear and that is precisely what it gets told by many politicians. They know where the votes are. It's their consciences they've misplaced.