In a small town south of Houston, they say school prayer is a matter of religious freedom. But even in Santa Fe, freedom for one student can be tyranny for another.

The two tables had been set up as a sort of gateway, 17-year-old Jennifer Mason says, and they flanked the path to her locker after her last class at Santa Fe High one day in the spring of 1993. As she neared the tables, Mason saw that each one held a stack of diminutive red Bibles. When a neatly dressed man standing near one of the tables proffered a volume, Mason -- Baptist, honor student and student columnist for the Texas City Sun newspaper -- politely said no. She went to her locker and the Gideon representative took no more notice of her. But others did.

Walking home from school that afternoon, Mason met a small knot of students, including three whom she considered friends. They didn't look friendly. As they got nearer, Mason recalls, they began shoving and goading her. "Are you a devil worshiper?" one asked. "Why didn't you take a Bible?" For days after that, Mason says, someone else at her school would make a similar needling comment. But summer came, the questions dissipated and the incident seemed to be forgotten, by Mason and her tormentors.

Then last spring, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two anonymous Santa Fe plaintiffs brought Mason's Gideon memories rushing back. The plaintiffs, one of whom is described in court papers as Mormon, each had two children in Santa Fe schools and had complained to the ACLU about a string of events, including the Bible handouts, that revealed an undue presence of religion in the public schools of the small community about 20 miles north of Galveston. In the planning for about two years, the suit was filed in Galveston's federal court in April 1995, two months before that year's graduation. Suddenly the town was embroiled in a rancorous controversy over how much religion belongs in Santa Fe schools -- and who should decide it. In its suit, the ACLU demanded an immediate end to graduation and football game prayer, and for Santa Fe to draft and enforce a policy against in-school religious influence.

Four months after that graduation season -- when, among other events, U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent had prohibited "sectarian" and "proselytizing" prayer and vowed to clap violators in jail -- Santa Fe is still simmering. Yes, it's quieter now: Houston TV crews descend less often, and the senior class that was at the eye of the controversy has graduated. But, if anything, both the ACLU and the defendant, the board of the Santa Fe Independent School District, are spoiling more than ever for a court fight. Each side calls the issue a test case and is eager to push onward to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, even the U.S. Supreme Court, if Kent's scheduled December ruling does not go their way.

Jennifer Mason believes that what happened to her on Gideon Bible day reflects more than a few kids' overzealousness. Instead, she says it reflects a widespread mentality in Santa Fe, one that became especially pronounced in this town of 9,000 after the ACLU suit was lodged. It's a viewpoint, Mason believes, that is far more extreme than the school board's publicly stated goal of increasing religious freedom for all.

"We're not talking about something the school is directing or promoting; the kids decide," trustee Mike Lopez has said of the district's new graduation policy. "If we get some New Ager up there praying to mother earth, we'd accept that."

"If the school got everything they wanted, we all know what religion [Santa Fe High] would be," Jennifer Mason counters bluntly. "Baptist. They basically want a private religious school that has public funding."

The Busy Bee Diner, comfortably sprawled by Highway 6, honors Santa Feans' affinity for livestock. In this clean, mostly working-class community whose citizens toil at the refineries in Texas City or at NASA, a hard-working family has a good chance at attaining the dream of a nice house or a trailer, some land and a few head of cattle. Beside the greenness and the space, it's the lack of big-city rules and land-use ordinances that makes Santa Fe so appealing, residents say. And the Busy Bee, a roomy, wood-paneled cafe on Highway 6 that's open around the clock, celebrates that liberty by offering free frames and wall space for a photo of you and your favorite animal. The good-natured pictures, of teenagers and adults proudly embracing horses or prize cattle (no household pets), are among the first things you see when you enter the Busy Bee.

At the Busy Bee, a waitress will always take a minute to chat with you, even if all you've ordered is coffee. Haydee Moranto, who waits tables after school, explains that a lot of the cafe's regulars are members of Alcoholics Anonymous who come in just for communal companionship after their meetings. Big families crowd the tables at dinner time, a couple sit side-by-side doing household accounts with a calculator, and a stranger can sit at the counter and strike up a chat with anyone. In recent months, it's gotten more common to see someone in a booth reading a Bible.

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