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.

"It's almost like there's been a glass dome over Santa Fe and nothing has changed in the last 20 years," says one local. "All around us people are integrating, but we have not changed. There is no way we could stay that way without the influence of the three Ks. And I think there are a lot of people who are involved in the school prayer debate and also the KKK."

Perhaps bearing some of this tarnished history in mind, Santa Fe schools superintendent Richard Ownby and the seven-member board of trustees were at first fairly conciliatory when news of the suit broke. For awhile, it even looked like they might meet the ACLU partway regarding commencement, baccalaureate and football game prayers.

A moderate man with a trim, compact look that is distinctive to many Santa Fe civic leaders, Ownby says he hoped at first to be a mediator in the case. Before the lawsuit, Ownby had a track record of responding to, if not preventing, many of the cited infractions when they'd occurred. Maybe if the district could promise that student prayer at graduation and football games would omit naming specific deities, trustees reasoned, the suit could be settled without risking the praying rights that Santa Fe schools already exercised.

The compromise made sense to U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent. In June 1995, he ordered upcoming graduation prayers to use only "non-sectarian, non-proselytizing language." At first, Kent forbade the mention of specific deities such as Jesus Christ. Then he amended his ruling to outlaw religious "sales pitches." Kent says he based his ruling on a 1993 case known as Jones v. the Clear Creek Independent School District. The idea in the Clear Creek ruling, Kent says, is that student-led prayer may be used to mark the solemnity of a school event, but must not aim to convert its listeners to any one religion.

"The technical rule is this," explains Kent in a recent telephone interview. "[Under my ruling], prayer can be to a specific deity but it must be non-proselytizing and non-specific." If that sounds somewhat baffling, he acknowledges, it is. What defines proselytizing? Who should determine if a specific prayer is proselytizing or just "solemnifying" something? Asked if he can clarify things, Kent answers tartly, "No. Therein lies the rub."

His duty, he says, is to maximize both sides' rights under the law as it now stands. "They get from me as clear an articulation of the law applied to the facts in the case as they can. Whether or not they're happy with that," Kent declares, "they can take it to the Fifth Circuit."

Despite the ambient drama of four TV crews and Kent's threat to lock up proselytizing speech givers, however, last spring's graduation actually came off fairly calmly. Probably rattled by the thought of accidentally converting a listener, student speakers kept their invocations mostly deity-free. But the school board was dissatisfied: what they really wanted was restriction-free prayer. In the weeks after the lawsuit, SFISD attorney Kelly Frels came up with a plan: what if the school formed a restriction-free policy but promised to fall back on the Clear Creek guidelines if the court shot them down?

Public opinion at the same time was turning to a vocal and radical-minded trustee named Mike Lopez, a chemical plant worker who calls himself "about as right wing as a person can be." From the moment the ACLU suit was made public, Lopez says, he considered it one of the best things to hit Santa Fe.

"When they told us we had a lawsuit filed against us, I like to jump through the roof with joy. I welcome the challenge," Lopez says. Recently elected after calling for abstinence-only sex education and abolishing TAAS tests, Lopez fiercely opposes restricting students' religious speech. "I don't see how anyone can tell anyone else who they can and can't pray to," he says. "We're talking about spirituality here. How can anything of the earth rule over that which created the earth? People need to quit looking at this as a prayer thing ... to me it's an issue of liberty."

Fortified by Lopez's insistence, and the fact of SFISD's $1 million liability insurance, the trustees took their stand. In July, they announced their new policy: starting this year, students would first vote whether they wanted a prayer, then elect religious speakers for football games and graduation from among their peers. That student would then be permitted to make any religious reference he or she liked. After all, if the speakers are student-elected, Lopez says, their religious statements can't be construed as school-endorsed (which could be interpreted as violating the First Amendment). Instead, the youngsters would simply be exercising free speech.

To Mike Lopez's mind, he fearlessly says aloud what the majority of the townspeople believe. A self-taught history enthusiast, Lopez grew up in Texas City in a devoutly Catholic Italian-Hispanic family, and converted to Baptism when he married his wife, a Santa Fe native. Lopez was elected to the school board last year in a close runoff against a more liberal rival; his victory, Lopez feels, simply mirrored last year's national Republican landslide. "I am the mainstream, whether it be here in Santa Fe or America itself," Lopez says.

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