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.

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.

"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.

As for those who don't share the mainstream's religious beliefs, Lopez says he doubts that exposure to Christian prayer will do them any harm. Young people today are bombarded with peer pressure and harmful messages about drugs, alcohol, sex and gangs, Lopez says. "Homosexuals, ethnic minorities and feminists can say what they want when they want to. You tell me a 17-year-old kid offering up a prayer on graduation night is a violation of rights?"

"It seems so innocent," says Galveston lawyer Anthony Griffin, who represents the two anonymous Santa Fe plaintiffs for the ACLU, "to say, 'All we want to do is pray.' On the other hand, what if you have a child of a different faith or a nonbeliever? We're placing that child in the midst of 30 other kids [in a town like Santa Fe] and even if we're real nice, and not saying a deity, it's a given who the deity is." No matter how pure the group's spirituality, says Griffin, who opposes prayer at graduation, football games and other school-sponsored events, "you are subjecting that child to tyranny of the majority." That, Griffin argues, is what Santa Fe has already done to his two anonymous clients, whom he says feel physically endangered, and any other child in Santa Fe who is non-Baptist or simply a nonbeliever.

Graduation and football prayers, actually, are just minor points in the lawsuit. More serious, the ACLU contends, is what it calls Santa Fe's pattern, over at least two years, of other religion-linked violations in the schoolroom. The court papers enumerate. There was the annual distribution of Gideon Bibles -- not in itself illegal, if other groups were welcome to hand out literature, too. But, says the ACLU's Debbie Perky, that didn't seem to occur.

There was the teacher who told a Mormon child his religion was a cult, and a teacher who asked parents' permission to teach a sign-language song about Jesus, then made the two students without permission wait alone outdoors while their classmates learned the song.

There was the promotion and establishment during school hours of the religious "Joy Club," run by a Santa Fe teacher; the teacher who sent parents a note citing a national study that "students with strong religious background are the most likely to succeed in school." There was the pre-lunchtime class taught to sing, "Oh the Lord is good to me .... The Lord is good to me. Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen. Dig in!" Other complaints surfaced later, in oral arguments before the judge: grade-school spelling lists with words like "resurrection" and "savior" demonstrated in doctrinal phrases by a teacher and unconfirmed reports of straight-out class prayer.

Gary Causey, the principal of Santa Fe High, argues that practices such as the Gideon handouts have gone on for generations in Bible belt towns, and that the district always did its duty by addressing infractions when they arose. The teacher who called Mormonism a "cult" received a prompt, written reprimand, he points out, and the sign language song was discontinued as soon as a parent complained.

But to Margaret Snively, a Catholic and one of about five parents who publicly oppose the school board on religious issues, that piecemeal approach isn't enough. She believes religious culture belongs at home, and she resents what she sees as SFISD's pervasive meddling with her own teachings. "My children say the Hail Mary," says Snively. "If you tell a class to sing before lunch, and it has Jesus and amen in it, well it sounds like a prayer." If anything, Snively says, she wants her children to pray more formally, with words that reflect their own faith.

Snively also doesn't buy the arguments that a little religion in a school setting can set children of whatever faith on the right path. Not only school officials espouse this theory: None other than Judge Kent, who professes to have agonized over how to be fair to both sides in the case, says, "I think prayer has a place in education. If for no other reason, look around. We're living in a society where the breakdown of family values are evident. The breakdown is, what if families aren't up to the task of [moral education]? There are absent parents, parents in prison, parents in extremis circumstances."

But Snively, a big woman with coppery red hair, believes that Santa Fe's passion for religion in school only hides the town's real social problems. Snively recalls attending schools in Santa Fe in the years before the 1962 Supreme Court ruling outlawed class prayer.

When she was in eighth grade, Snively recalls, she took a class with a teacher who had been born again. The teacher wouldn't let the class leave until they had all prayed. "At the same time, a girl in our class was getting the shit beaten out of her," Snively recalls. "For 12 years, we saw that girl come to school with bruises and no one ever asked questions about it." Similarly, at a school board meeting last April, a man she'd known from childhood told the group that he might not have wasted his life on drinking and drugs if he had been exposed to school prayer.

"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?"

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.

At the same time, it's clear that the same forces of flux so visible in places like Galveston, La Marque and Texas City, are what has energized Santa Fe's leaders to defend their traditional religious practices in the first place. It may be that in December, Judge Kent will say those efforts make a pattern of "endorsing one religious belief over another." Then again, Kent may decide that the dose of religion in Santa Fe schools is just enough to foster morality.

Meanwhile, Santa Fe's residents argue about majority and minority rights as if they were texts written in two different languages. The stake, both sides believe, is nothing less than their children's spirits. And at the Busy Bee, Haydee Moranto, starting her last year of school, ponders a question that's occurred to her in the advanced English class she's taking. The class is studying the Bible in the context of Western literature, and comparing the different translations.

"One Bible says Job is 'perfect' and the other says he is 'honest,'" Haydee says perplexedly. "Which of them is right? One of them has got to be, you know.


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