The self-styled evangelical came before a D.C. City Council committee Wednesday to confess that when she was a student in the District's public schools, she used to pray without permission.
Before every exam, Barbara Pugh Baker said, she would pray, "Lord, please help me pass this test."
Baker, representing the Evangel Temple, came to the committee hearing to urge that a controversial new bill be passed to restore prayer to the D.C. public schools, "in the name of prayer and in the name of Jesus."
The bill, introduced by council member Jerry Moore (R-At Large), the council's only clergyman, provides for "a moment of silence for prayer or meditation" in the public schools. While evangelicals, some preachers, and a D.C. school board member all praised the bill, civil libertarians said its language and intent may run afoul of Supreme Court opinions that banned officially sanctioned prayers in the public schools.
At least nine members of the 11-member council have indicated they support the bill, since it calls only for a "period of silence" without prescribing any specific prayer.
But by the end of the public hearing, it was clear that some council members were leaning toward striking the phrase "for prayer or meditation." Even the bill's opponents found no objection to legislation calling only for "a period of silence" during the course of the school day.
Craig Howell, a self-professed atheist, said that when the silence period is specifically set aside for prayer, it promotes religion at the expense of atheism.
To prove his point, Howell asked council members to consider how they would react to a bill allowing teachers to tell their classes: "Students, let us contemplate the follies of organized religon in silence."
Howell said, "Every one of you would cry out that such a bill was designed to promote atheism," and, he said, "Your objections would be as solidly founded as ours are here today."
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said after Howell's statement that she had come to understand the problems with a bill calling specifically for prayer. "It does require an amendment to the bill that would make it just a moment of silence," she said.
Moore said that while he would consider taking the word "prayer" from the bill's title, to remove the phrase "for prayer or meditation" would destroy his original intent -- to bring prayer back into the schools.
Moore exchanged some friendly, but pointed oral jabs with Leslie Harris, the director of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, over the constitutionality of the bill.
"Do you think people need the support of the ACLU to pray?" Moore asked. "Cite me the verse [in the Constitution] where it says it is unconstitutional to pray."
Harris replied that there was no such verse and that the ACLU supported the right of individuals to pray. But, she said, the courts have ruled that prayer cannot be forced or even encouraged by the government.
"Well," Moore replied, "I don't agree with the Supreme Court or you either."
The Rev. R. G. Puckett, executive director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the bill "one of those back-door attempts to put compulsory prayer back in District public schools" by using vague language to "circumvent" the Suprme Court.