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.

East and west of the diner, Santa Fe's small frame houses give way to trailer homes. Some are humble, others sturdier with porches and viny trellises. Between them stretch the open green spaces that have tempted a small stream of urban refugees for the past decade.

You don't have to be conservative to appreciate the small-town predictability of the place. Margaret Snively, a Santa Fe native who strenuously opposes the school's approach to prayer, nevertheless says she settled here as an adult partly because of Santa Fe's white-bread homogeneity. Those who didn't grow up here typically have moved here from nearby Texas City or La Marque. The town is mostly Baptist and about 90 percent white, with a smattering of Hispanics.

"God, it sounds so hypocritical," says Snively. "But I like the peacefulness. When you have a variety of people you have a variety of conflicts. I moved back here because it was the best deal we could get on a place, (and) Galveston was getting too crazy."

By contrast, Santa Fe is a place where an outsider is quickly noticed but cordially treated; where teenagers still swarm after school to the Sonic; where a rash of vandalized mailboxes is called a crime wave. The town seems to promise predictability. Take it or leave it, the Santa Fe Beauty Shop seems to say, you'll get a haircut here and no doubts about the beautician's stand on things. "A clean, Christian place," her candy-pink business card says.

"God Bless John Wayne," reads a pickup truck's bumper sticker in the parking lot of another hair salon. "Made by/Paid for/Driven by an American," declares another sticker on the same truck.

Not only do Santa Feans know what they like, they also make it clear what they reject. A lot of residents, says one observer who asked not to be named, are "aginners," -- "agin" someone telling them what to do with their property, their children, their taxes. "They're nonconformists," he adds. Then he offers a third, slightly more complicated observation: "It's a white flight district. A lot of people moved here to get away from something they didn't like in their neighborhoods in Texas City, La Marque or Galveston."

If there is more than one term for the kind of people who like Santa Fe, there are also several layers to its small-town values. In the 20-odd years since the small towns of Arcadia, Algoa and Alta Loma joined together and incorporated as Santa Fe, the community has attracted an inordinate amount of negative attention. In 1981, as local fisherman violently confronted Vietnamese shrimpers in Galveston, a Santa Fe resident hosted a Ku Klux Klan rally on his property. Later that year, Klan members returned to Santa Fe again for another cross burning. Louis Beam, the former Grand Dragon of the Texas Ku Klux Klan whose wife hails from Sante Fe, played a large role in the controversy.

Even after the rallies ended and the courts closed a Klan paramilitary training camp in the area, Santa Fe still carried a widespread reputation as racist. "It's more known for prejudice than for religiousness," says 15-year-old Steven Penn, a Santa Fe High student.

Virtually no blacks live in Santa Fe; in explanation, junior high and high school students recount an apparently apocryphal story of what happened in Santa Fe's low-income housing project two years ago. "You know how there used to be segregation, and blacks and whites lived separately?" one student says. "Well, the KKK thought black people were going to live in that housing project, and they burned it down." In fact, an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms concluded the fire was accidental. But belief that the Klan was to blame for the fire is so common that the rumor has taken on the authority of history in many Santa Fe conversations.

Galveston County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who as an assistant district attorney monitored Santa Fe during the Vietnamese fishing violence, says that the Klan is still active here. "I will tell you a story that I found kind of funny," Johnson says. "When I was first assigned to the [court] out there they gave me a misdemeanor case in Santa Fe." The case involved an elderly man whose neighbors repeatedly set their dogs on him as he went out on walks. When Johnson went to investigate, the couple in question confirmed that they were feuding with their neighbor, but got uneasy when Johnson asked to see their dogs' papers.

The woman tried to just wave the documents in his direction, but Johnson insisted on looking closer. "The dogs' names were Nigger, Blackie and Spade," Johnson, who is African-American, recalls. "She said, 'Mr. Johnson, we had a dog named Whitey, but it died.' I said, 'Ma'am, you don't have to invent a dog for my benefit.'"

When he returned to court, Johnson says, the judge, who was a friend, told him he'd been searching for weeks for a case that would give Johnson a sense of what Santa Fe was about.

Fourteen years later, Johnson hastens to say, Santa Fe has many good citizens who want to put that era behind. A young man who has spent all his life here says he wishes it were more diverse; the town has a reputation for embracing newcomers who find the Klan's history repellent. But Santa Fe's past intolerance still echoes dully in today's school prayer dispute. "I hope I don't get a cross burned on my lawn for this," citizens who criticize the school board nervously joke before asking not to be identified.

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