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.

One of the most vilified suspects at that time was outstanding senior and student leader Jerry Du, another academic decathlon member who now attends the University of Southern California. Haydee Moranto says that schoolmates tormented Du shamelessly. "He said he shouldn't be blamed for something he didn't do," Moranto recalls in a sad voice. "He's Catholic so they thought he was the one. He said 'No, if I were the one I would have told you.' He really didn't like this town because it was really unfair at times. They'd just harass him and say, 'Just admit you did it.'"

Du, who was one of the student speakers at graduation, reportedly gave a speech that was lyrical but not specifically religious. (Du could not be located to be interviewed for this story; his family was not listed in the local phone directory.)

As tensions in Santa Fe escalated, it became common in social situations to inquire about an acquaintance's faith. Fellow churchgoers, Mason said, even asked her affiliation -- absurd, she adds, considering she's attended the First Baptist Church of Alta Loma longer than its senior pastor has presided there. But Pastor Alan Splawn, a surpassingly energetic man who took over the Alta Loma congregation ten years ago, has forged a strong presence during his time at the church. He is a prominent member of Santa Fe's Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of about two dozen church leaders that has figured prominently in the lawsuit controversy.

With its strong links to the school board, the ministers' alliance was one of the first contacts Ownby made upon taking office as superintendent, he says. U.S. Representative Steve Stockman also listened to the alliance, linking them up with the conservative clergyman Donald Wildmon's Tupelo-based American Family Association Law Center. The group sent two lawyers to Santa Fe to assist the alliance free of charge.

Seated near a huge image of Jesus Christ drawn wholly in black and white save for its brilliant blue eyes, Splawn breathlessly describes the coalition's battle against the lawsuit. "The history's so incredible, even if one were an agnostic he'd believe after reading this [court record]," Splawn says. "I saw ministers who never meet together because of denominational differences agree on this. If this is a sectarian issue, why were there no differences between the sects?" Splawn, who believes that the problems in U.S. schools are directly traceable to the end of school prayer, argues that Christians have been silent in U.S. courts for two decades, and it is now time to assert their rights.

But Jennifer Mason says that Splawn's preaching and activism in the debate alienated several former church-going families, including her own; she no longer attends First Baptist of Alta Loma. Mason's family has experienced other fallout from the community tensions. Jennifer's 12-year-old sister, Danielle, is being home schooled this year; Tiffany, the 14-year-old middle sister, says that she is so disgusted by the hypocrisy and mud-slinging she's seen that she's lost her religion. "We used to say she was going to be a nun," says their mother, Debbie.

And though the Masons are among the most vociferous school prayer opponents, they are not the only ones to have felt betrayed or discriminated against. One disillusioned classmate of Jennifer's announced to her parents that the controversy had driven her to atheism. And at a contentious school board meeting where Margaret Snively stood up to read a statement, she mentioned that she herself was religious, a Catholic. Behind her, she says, one woman said to another parent, "Oh, she's not Christian."

School trustee Mike Lopez impatiently dismisses such complaints, however. "In this town," he says, "you have a handful of women who basically operate outside the mainstream. That's how they get noticed, that's how they get their name in the paper. They've been doing this for years, everyone knows who they are .... My personal view on that is they have a void in their life, and emptiness. Stunts like [the lawsuit] help fill that void ... the only way that void is going to be filled is through the saving grace of Jesus Christ."

Haydee Moranto's sociable smile drops from her face as she returns from serving a table. "See that?" she says, lifting her chin toward a window table, "You talk about religion being forced in schools, but I think it's worse when it's forced within families." She has just delivered a basket of french fries to a couple sitting with their five-year-old daughter. The father insisted that they not eat until they say grace, and they couldn't say grace until the french fries arrived some minutes after the main meal, Moranto reports. When the little girl tried to pluck a french fry before praying, her father gave her a slap.

The scenario disturbs Moranto. It's likely, however, that plenty of others in Santa Fe would see it as old-fashioned discipline, a fatherly reminder of how important it is to mind God. But however slowly, old-fashioned ways in Santa Fe are coming under new scrutiny. Natives like Margaret Snively move to the city and then return home, foreigners like Moranto slowly move in and subtly alter Santa Fe's demographics, and Highway 6 is now a path for cameras and lawyers and observers who once would have passed Santa Fe by. Of all communities, Santa Fe, with its efforts to live down the past, already knows that just because a way of life once worked doesn't mean it still can.

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