"f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," Justice Stevens reminds us in the words of an earlier Supreme Court decision, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." Recalling this holding, the justice now writes in no uncertain terms, "The State of Alabama, no less than the Congress of the United States, must respect that basic truth."

At issue before the high court this week was an Alabama statute providing for a moment of silence in public school classrooms, in order to allow for meditation or voluntary prayer. Six justices saw the language of that statute, the egislative history and the expressed motives of Alabama legislators as indicating a clear intention to endorse religion and return voluntary prayer to the schools.

Twenty-five states permit or require public schoolteachers to have students observe a moment of silence. Alabama, in fact, had exactly such a neutral law on the books when, in 1981, it enacted a second statute, explicitly suggesting that the quiet period be used for prayer. The constitutionality of the original Alabama law was not before the court in this case, nor were the similarly neutral statutes in the other two dozen states. But it seems clear from this week's opinions that a majority of the court would find no constitutional impediment to such an observance.

Alabama's moment of silence for prayer statute, however, does not meet the standard the Supreme Court set out 14 years ago for determining whether a statute violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Laws having religious overtones are permissible under the constitution only if they 1) have a secular legislative purpose, 2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and 3) do not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. A neutral moment of silence law may meet this test, but the Alabama prayer period does not.

In practical terms, this decision, Wallace v. Jaffree, may have little impact, since the earlier Alabama law -- and the statutes of 24 other states -- remain in force. As an indication of the justices' strong commitment to retaining the separation of church and state in the public schools, though, it is heartening. Prayer is personal, private and protected. Nothing prevents an individual child from praying silently in any place at any time, including a period during the school day set aside for silence. It would be impossible to enforce such a prohibition even if the state wanted to. But neither can the government force or encourage religious practice in a diverse and free society, especially in schoolrooms where attendance is compulsory and children are under pressure to conform. The court is clear in announcing that any state's attempt to subvert these basic and cherished principles will not be allowed.