In Washington, where it breezed through Congress last summer with minimal debate and muted opposition, Public Law 98-377 seemed so reasonable, so harmless, so easy to implement.

It was called the Equal Access Act, and backers described its requirement as simplicity itself. The law said any public high school receiving federal funds -- in other words, every public high school -- had to give student religious groups the same right to meet in classrooms that such secular groups as the Chess Club enjoy.

But, like so many laws and regulations that look pure as mother's milk to official Washington, the Equal Access Act turned sour this month when applied to real students in a real school in a real American town.

When a student leader at Boulder High School asked the principal to provide an after-school classroom for a Bible study club, the request split school and city along religious lines, prompting a torrent of anguished speeches, sermons, petitions and counter-petitions.

The Boulder Valley School Board finally swept this hornet's nest aside Monday night by passing a new rule precisely opposite what the congressional majority had in mind: the board banned all student religious and political clubs from school grounds.

This university town at the foot of the Rockies became one of the nation's first communities to face up to Public Law 98-377 and evidently is first to respond by banning all religious meetings. School board lawyer Gerald Caplan said other districts have called for advice.

He predicted that Boulder's new "closed policy" will become the common way to deal with what Washington has wrought.

The federal law that split Boulder and led to Monday's action was passed last July by a Congress eager to do something about school prayer in the wake of the Senate's rejection of a constitutional amendment on school prayer.

The Equal Access Act was to provide relief to student religious groups, often fundamentalist Christians, that have been denied the right by many states to meet in school rooms before or after classes.

The law says no school that provides classroom space for other student groups can refuse to provide such a "limited open forum" because of "religious, political, philosophical or other content of the speech at such meetings."

That seemed made to order to Greg Ballou, a popular Boulder High senior and member of a Presbyterian prayer group that meets after school.

Ballou took a copy of the new federal statute to the principal's office and formally requested classroom space for his student religious group.

While the principal was pondering, Josh Friedman, another popular Boulder High student, who is Jewish, protested the idea. Friedman and others, Christian and Jewish, complained about evangelizing by born-again Christians that could stigmatize some students.

Ballou and fellow prayer-group members launched a petition drive to have the federal law enforced. Friedman and fellow opponents launched a counter-petition asking that religion be kept out of the pluralistic school community.

The board began a series of public forums on the question. Speakers were sharply divided; feelings were passionate on both sides.

"Let's call the opposition what it is," parent Stephen Getman, a prayer backer, declared angrily. "It's religious discrimination, humanist bigotry. Why is it so evil that these children want to pray?"

Joan Russell, a Jew, replied, "It's distressing enough to send my daughter to school now, with Christmas trees and all the other Christian symbols."

At last, the school board bit the bullet. Concluding that "the district does not intend . . . to create or permit an open forum for student-initiated organizations in the secondary schools," the school board and its lawyer found a way around Public Law 98-377.

The board unanimously adopted a policy that classrooms will not be available for any student group unless it is "curriculum-related, school-sponsored."

The key phrase, "curriculum-related," was left undefined. But lawyer Caplan said it probably would mean that the Spanish Club gets a classroom and the Ski Club does not. No religious or political student group will be curriculum-related, he said, so all will be banned.

In essence, Boulder turned the equal access law into an equal non-access policy. Caplan said there was really not much choice.

"It is a very, very broad law," he told board members. "You either let everybody in, or you keep everybody out."