The Alexandria City Council voted last night to open a public clinic that will distribute contraceptives to students at the city's only high school. The facility will be the Washington area's first school-based clinic to distribute birth control devices.

After a testy debate that included references to next spring's City Council election, council members voted 6 to 1 for the clinic. The only dissenting vote was cast by Republican council member Carlyle C. (Connie) Ring Jr., who said he favored establishing a student health facility, but opposed the dispensing of birth control devices there.

The clinic, scheduled to open in 1988 near T.C. Williams High School, prompted months of emotional debate, pitting groups who believe that providing contraceptives to students will encourage promiscuity against others who say the clinic will lower Alexandria's skyrocketing teen-age pregnancy rate. "I have not seen the community this divided in nearly a generation," said Democratic council member T. Michael Jackson.

But the debate also appeared to reflect election year politics. Democratic Mayor James P. Moran Jr., one of the clinic's leading advocates, sharply attacked Ring, who is actively considering running for mayor. Moran, saying, "I am exasperated," charged that Ring had frequently missed meetings of a task force that studied the clinic proposal. Ring called the charge "not factually true."

Three people who oppose the clinic -- including Marjorie Mulloy, president of Concerned Alexandrians for Responsible Education, an anticlinic group -- have said they will run for council next spring in an effort to overturn the council's decision.

Several council members emphasized that they did not see the clinic as a quick fix for the city's teen pregnancy problem, but said that it should be part of a broad-based corrective effort.

"If we were talking about curing a malaria epidemic or tuberculosis we would not be having this kind of a discussion," said Republican council member Robert L. Calhoun. "But because we are talking about sex, we have ignited passions. We may not be able to cure {the pregnancy problem}, but we should at least take a cut at the issue."

The council defeated a motion by Democratic council member Lionel Hope to put the issue to an advisory referendum, saying the time to act is now. "This item has had its day in court," said Democratic council member Redella S. (Dell) Pepper, "and it's never going to get off the drawing board unless we vote up or down."

The controversy over the clinic began 18 months ago when Moran appointed a task force to study the issue. It picked up steam this fall when Virginia Health Department statistics showed that Alexandria's "If we were talking about curing a malaria epidemic or tuberculosis we would not be having this kind of a discussion. "But because we are talking about sex, we have ignited passions."

-- Robert L. Calhoun

More than 17 percent of the city's teen-age girls got pregnant in 1986, the statistics showed, and more than half of those who conceived had abortions. Both figures represented a marked increase from 1985.

The campaign against the clinic was one of the most emotional the city had seen in years.

Opponents packed City Hall for a public hearing on the facility last month and spent more than $7,500 on newspaper and radio ads. The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, which includes most of Northern Virginia, played a leading role, issuing a formal statement of opposition and decrying the clinic in local parish pulpits.

Clinic supporters were more low key, publishing only a few newspaper ads and turning out for the public hearing.

Three weeks ago, the School Board endorsed the clinic by a vote of 6 to 2 with one abstention. The board majority said it would be a valuable tool in fighting teen-age pregnancy, while those in the minority said they did not know enough about the clinic to endorse it.

In some ways the clinic is an outgrowth of city policies already in place. The school system has for several years taught an extensive sex education curriculum, which was initially billed as a tool to combat teen pregnancy. The city Health Department provides birth control devices and information at a clinic across town from T.C. Williams; a half-mile from the school, a nonprofit clinic in a Methodist Church offers the same services.

But opponents of the clinic say the fight is not yet over.

"I think there's a large portion of the population still upset with this," said Mulloy, leader of the anticlinic forces. "We can deal with that next spring" in council elections.