Pray

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.

"I felt like pointing out, we did have prayer," Snively says. "There are so many more issues going on here. There's a high teen pregnancy rate, a high rate of domestic violence. I grew up with these people. I know it's there .... There was a bond issue [to build a new high school] that failed. We had an algebra class that didn't get books until March or April.

"I almost believe," Snively says, "that kids come second here."

Santa Fe has done well by Haydee Moranto, who waits tables afternoons at the Busy Bee. A senior at Santa Fe High, Moranto's chirpy voice belies the drive that has put her among the top students in her class, and the discretion with which she's finessed her status as a Mexican resident alien in a mostly white town.

So extroverted that she's prone to detail her life plans to strangers with no prompting at all, Moranto relates over the Busy Bee lunch counter that she plans to visit her father in Nuevo Laredo this month. She's a little worried how her resplendently pale-skinned boyfriend, who's going with her, will be received in Mexico. "My boyfriend's real white, and they're prejudiced there you know? Like here, only opposite," she says.

Moranto, who in her spare time competes in the school's academic decathlon and presides over the Spanish Club, thinks the objections to graduation day prayer are overblown. After all, she says matter-of-factly, she could argue that because she's Mexican, she should be offended at singing the U.S. national anthem. It's an easygoing attitude that seems to have helped her to grow up in Santa Fe. Having spent the first eight years of her life in Texas City, Moranto remembers both the discomfort of being one of the few Mexicans in her class here, and how her classmates teased her because of childhood burn scars on both her legs. Now, though, Santa Fe knows her so well that she considers the town family. Sometimes she even wears shorts.

Moranto doesn't object to prayer at school ceremonies, not so much because of religious faith as her faith in Santa Fe's authority figures. "If I was Jewish [or another minority religion], I would go up to the principal and say could you include something for me in the prayer," she says. "I'm sure they'd do something."

It's not just Santa Fe's model students who believe in the redemption a little school-time religion can offer, either. One blazing afternoon, a small group of junior high and high school students dressed in droopy jeans and exuding teenage ennui slouch together in the HEB parking lot. Ranging in age from 12 to 17, the students criticize their school, criticize Santa Fe -- and mostly support prayer of some kind in school.

"I don't think those people should have sued," says 15-year-old Myndie, leaning out the front seat of a male friend's parked car. "No one was forcing them to pray."

"If there's one prayer going on for one religion, there should be prayer for each religion," offers 15-year-old Steven Penn. After considering a bit he adds, "Maybe they should have prayer at football games, and any kind of related event, so that no one gets hurt."

The more clean-cut students milling around inside the supermarket voice even stronger support of prayer in their schools. "I think it was just a Jehovah's Witness, someone who didn't believe in God, who complained to the ACLU," says 15-year-old Lynne Jones. "I don't see what's wrong with praying in school. If a person doesn't like our prayer then they don't have to participate." The other students at Santa Fe High School apparently agreed: during the first week of September, they were allowed to vote in the new referendum on prayer at football games and graduation. Only about 120 out of 1,250 students took part in the vote, run by the Student Council. All but seven students voted for prayer.

While the seven dissenting ballots at Santa Fe High were secret, it's a fair bet that most students have an idea of who checked them off. What remains to be seen is whether anyone cares. Last spring, in the hectic glare of camera lights and front page news coverage, affiliation in the debate definitely mattered. Almost immediately after the ACLU filed its suit, emotion, speculation, proclamations of religious faith and, for some, intimidation swept through the town. In a hamlet such as Santa Fe -- with its tiny downtown defined by churches, lounges and convenience stores in a row down Highway 6 -- it's hard to keep secrets. When the lawsuit became public, it was easy, say Santa Fe High students, to wonder which of their Mormon, Vietnamese and Catholic classmates might be the plaintiffs.

Jennifer Mason, a member of the same academic quiz team on which Haydee Moranto competes, says she is not one of the two plaintiffs. But partly because she and her mother, Debbie, both publicly support the ACLU suit, Mason's classmates quickly deemed her a target of their informal crusade.

Two years after being cornered for refusing a Gideon Bible, Mason was once again the focus of taunts. Before school administration got wind and forbade it, for example, several students passed out a petition denouncing the suit. When Mason refused to sign it, the petitioners accused her of being a plaintiff. "I got harassed," Mason says. "They called me everything. The kids would ask me, Are you an atheist? Are you a communist? Are you a lesbian?"

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