The D.C. City Council's lone cleryman has introduced a bill to restore prayer to the city's public schools -- a move civil libertarians say may conflict with the Supreme Court's various rulings limiting official school prayer.
An informal poll indicates nine of the council's 13 members provisionally support the measure introduced by Councilman Jerry A. Moore Jr. (R-At Large), pastor of the Nineteeth Street Baptist Church.
The measure would provide that a "period of silence for prayer or meditation may be observed in public schools."
Moore said the emphasis on "silent" prayer or meditation in his bill puts it outside the prohibitions of the Supreme Court. While the court has consistently struck down spoken or written prayers in public schools, it has never ruled on the issue of "silent" periods for prayer attorneys familiar with the subject say.
The head of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Leslie Harris, said she will speak against the bill at a public hearing on it scheduled for July 2.
Dr. Charles B. Bergstorm, executive director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs of the Lutheran Council in Washington has also said his group will oppose the measure.
The bill appears to follow a recent trend around the nation to return prayer in one form or another to the schools.
Those members of the D.C. City Council who have expressed support for Moore's measure caution that their backing depends on the measure's being found constitutional by the council's staff attorney, Lawrence Mirel.
Mirel said Moore's measure involves areas left largely untouched by the high courts rulings.
Asserting that Supreme Court decisions have created the "widespread perception" that prayer in public schools is illegal, Moore said he introduced his measure "to clear up a situation where people are unclear about their rights."
Everyone, he added, possesses a "spiritual right" to pray any place he chooses, including the public schools.
Moore, in an interview, said the language of his bill is intentionally vague to avoid the Supreme Court's specific prohibition of officially sponsored prayer, and leaves room for individual teachers and pupils in public schools to pray or meditate (or not to pray or meditate) in their own private way.
Any legal challenge of the Moore bill would appear to turn on whether an officially designated period of prayer or meditation -- even if silent and voluntary -- violates Supreme Court standards.
In explaining his group's opposition to the measure, the Lutheran Council's Bergstorm said that "whenever prayer becomes a collective gathering it has all kinds of dangers in it." He said his group would also oppose the measure "in deference to the people who do not pray."
Harris of the ACLU said "The Supreme Court didn't say you can't put your head down in a study hall, close your eyes and pray. If this bill is to allow (children) to do that, they can do that now."
City Council members conditionally supporting the bill expressed various views.
"Nothing has said the Supreme Court ever prohibited prayer in public schools," said David Clarke (D-One), an attorney. "The Supreme Court said prayer cannot be required. If anything is constitutional, this bill probably is."
In a sense, said Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Four), the bill's title, "Prayer in the Schools," is a "misnomer."
"All this bill calls for," she said, "is a period of silence. You can meditate. You can even dream."