Viewing the school-prayer issue objectively may be easier if the issue is seen as a case of competing good principles rather than competing people who are labeled bad. People on both sides of the issue have labeled people taking the opposite side as bad. Those on the prayer side see those opposing prayer as godless and therefore bad. On the other hand, those wishing to resolve the issue by saying that the majority should rule have been labeled as insensitive and oppressive to minority values and therefore bad, too.

Those opposing prayer see the issue as a matter of separation of church and state and believe prayer proponents are defying the Constitution.The truth of the matter is that there are at least two competing - but cherished - constitutional rights that make people on both sides of the issue feel that they are in the right. The Constitution provides for a separation of church and state at the same time it provides for freedom of speech. These two ideals seem at odds. How can we keep religion and a government institution disentangled from each other and at the same time allow people the freedom to offer prayers aloud?

To do so, it may be helpful to look at what the Constitution says. But remember, it is difficult to determine exactly what the writers intended.

There is really no direction in the articles of the Constitution concerning religion. The conflicting rights are in the First Amendment.

The Constitution itself makes only one reference to religion in Article VI, which states, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." This means that people working for the government or running for elected office cannot be asked about a religious preference nor can they be required to have any particular preference.

But the First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, . . ." Here is where the problem lies.

It is for the courts to decide "cases" and "controversies" and in this way clarify the practice of constitutional rights.

It is clear that two points are made concerning religion in this amendment. The first is that no law can be made "respecting an establishment of religion." The second is that the "free exercise" of religion cannot be tampered with by government.

This divides religion into two constitutional issues. One concerns church as an institution and the other the practice of religion. Prayer is a practice of religion.

When the Constitution was written, six of the original states had legal Anglican (Church of England) establishments and three had congregational Church establishments. Only one state, Rhode Island, had complete separation of church and state. This meant that the states could, to some varying degree before the Constitution was ratified, control or establish religion.

The statements in the Constitution can be viewed as a compromise that produced more diatribe than dialogue. It is fortunate that we are free to express our views on this issue.

The constitutional language is somewhere between Massachusetts, where witches were burned, and Rhode Island, which provided complete separation between church and state.

Perhaps an irony in the current debate is that one of the first major cases testing the separation of church and state occurred in 1878 when the Supreme Court declared polygamy illegal.

The first major education case that tested the separation principle came in 1947 when the courts ruled that using state funds to transport students to parochial schools in New Jersey did not violate the separation principle any more than providing roads and health services to people of different religious persuasions.

Justice Black wrote the opinion and restated a metaphor from Thomas Jefferson, who said "a wall of separation" should exist "between church and state." It is interesting that Jefferson did not declare Thanksgiving Days and Fast and Prayer Days as a matter of principle.

In the school-prayer debate, it will help to view it in terms of competing values that we wish to preserve. Certainly we wish to assure that we can continue to debate these issues as well as offer prayer. We certainly wish to practice religion without interference but do not wish to require religious practice of the non-believer. Forcing others to pray holds sacred beliefs up to ridicule and misinterpretation.

Next week's column while searching for solutions to the current issue of prayer in the schools, will note instances where influence of the state in religious matters are tolerated in the United States along with a toleration of religious influence of governmental institutions.