THE DECISION that educators and constitutional scholars are waiting for did not come from the Supreme Court this week. A case out of Williamsport, Pa., posed an important question: Does the Establishment Clause require a public high school to prevent a student prayer group from meeting on the premises during an extracurricular period in the school day? When the Supreme Court agreed to take the case it was expected that the justices would settle this question once and for all. Instead, the court dismissed the case on procedural grounds because the appeal had been taken by a single member of the school board who did not have authority to appeal on his own.
Extracurricular school prayer meetings can now be resumed in Williamsport, but because there was no Supreme Court ruling on the merits, confusion continues in the rest of the country. Congress tried to clear that up by passing the so-called "equal access" law two years ago. That statute requires schools that allow any kind of extracurricular meetings also to allow certain kinds of religious meetings under the same conditions. But even that law has been challenged, and court rulings have not been uniform.
There was a clue to the Supreme Court's thinking in the ruling on Tuesday, and it is found in two references to a 1981 case. In Widmar v. Vincent the court held that student religious meetings must be allowed on the campus of a state university and that to forbid such meetings, when other extracurricular gatherings are sanctioned, is to deny students their First Amendment rights. This decision was a reasonable one, because it involved college students who are old enough to make informed choices about the exercise of their rights. However, Justice Byron White, the lone dissenter in Widmar, warned that the decision would bring into question the court's long-held position against mandatory prayer in schools. That hasn't happened yet, but it is alarming that four dissenting justices this week wrote that the Widmar decision should be controlling in the Williamsport case.
There is an important distinction between allowing adults -- university students -- to hold prayer meetings on public property and allowing much younger students in junior and senior high schools to hold these meetings in school. The latter are required to attend school by law. They are far more susceptible to peer pressure and the influence of their teachers. They are much more likely to believe that even voluntary meetings have the special approval of authorities, and many do not have the self-confidence, at that age, to withdraw from a popular or approved activity. It is troubling that the justices do not acknowledge these distinctions. We hope they are weighed when another case similar to the Williamsport one is finally decided.