The Rev. Philip "Flip" Benham was about to eat his 17th jailhouse lunch here: a hamburger and mashed potatoes, chocolate milk, beans, corn and a cookie. "The food is good," he said.

Benham knows jails. He's been in several, arrested after protests at abortion clinics and doctors' homes, and also at Barnes & Noble bookstores and even Disney World. As the national director of Operation Rescue National, his job, to a certain extent, is to get arrested.

But he will get to know the Lynchburg jail better than any other. On Feb. 18, much to his surprise, he got a sentence of six months after leading a demonstration outside a high school here. He and a group of at least 150 Liberty University students carried gruesome posters picturing aborted fetuses and told arriving high-schoolers, including a busload of physically and mentally handicapped teenagers, that they were going to Hell if they didn't save unborn babies and accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

This is a conservative town, a place where you would expect people to welcome antiabortion activity. This is the Rev. Jerry Falwell's headquarters; he was born and brought up here, preaches at the Thomas Road Baptist Church and started Liberty University nearby. The mayor, James Whitaker, runs a Christian bookstore when he isn't at city hall. But neither of them liked it when Benham and two young supporters, John Reyes and Jeffrey L. Brown, brought the LU students to E.C. Glass High School last November.

The protest was part of a campaign called "God Is Going Back to School," which is one of several "Going to the Gates" protests. Benham is expanding Operation Rescue's targets to include broader cultural issues like pornography and homosexuality, issues he says represent the profound moral decay that allows abortion clinics to continue operating. But the effort, if what's happening here is any indication, may be falling a little flat.

"E.C. Glass High School is not the gates of Hell," said Commonwealth's Attorney William G. Petty, who successfully brought the case of trespassing against Benham. "There is no public support for what happened there."

Falwell once contributed $10,000 to the defense of Benham's predecessor, Randall Terry, the model fiery, defiant, clinic blockader. But even Falwell has condemned the way this protest was conducted, while still supporting the cause. Falwell even paid the $700 cost of police overtime to handle the demonstration. He has refused to support a series of "Release Flip Benham!" rallies that started last Friday. The Lynchburg News & Advance reported that few representatives of other antiabortion organizations are coming either.

Although Operation Restore Liberty organizers are promising that crowds will descend on this city of seven hills to picket the judge, the prosecutor and the school superintendent, 60 showed up Friday. Monday, Terry spoke to about 75 at an evening church rally, calling Benham a political prisoner "sentenced by the merchants of death."

Benham compares himself to great civil disobeyers like Martin Luther King Jr. and German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the abolitionists who helped runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. The law of man is subordinate to the law of God, he believes, and he is utterly confident of his interpretation of what God wants.

"Much of the New Testament was written in jail, you know," he says. The sheriff has refused to allow reporters access to Benham in jail, so he is reduced to calling them collect when his fellow inmates let him have a chance at the phone.

What he won't admit is that he really doesn't have to be in jail at all. At the School Door

Benham came to Lynchburg last November mostly because his twin sons, Jason and David, are seniors at Liberty University. Falwell invited him to speak at Thomas Road Baptist Church, and that evening Benham held a more informal session with students at the college. He invited them to "take a stand" at Glass High School the next morning with him, Reyes and the strapping Benham boys, who are both star baseball players on full athletic scholarships. Benham says he expected about 20 to appear at 6 a.m.; instead, he says, 300 showed up. Police say it was more like 150.

Taken by surprise, police and school officials asked Benham to take the LU students off school property, and he says he complied. Benham and Reyes maintain their troops did nothing more than "witness" or sing, and accosted no one. Others dispute that, saying some LU students entered the school and harangued high-schoolers, blocked entrances and scared the handicapped students. School officials and students were insulted to be thought of as hellbent, godless murderers of the unborn, which is what they heard as Benham's message.

There were no arrests made that day. But later Petty asked a grand jury to indict them on charges of trespassing, parading without a permit and disorderly conduct on school property. They were arrested and released on $2,500 bond, and waived a jury trial.

When asked for his occupation in court, Benham said he was a missionary whose job was to "save little baby boys and girls who are being led away to slaughter at abortion mills around the country." The city fathers, however, were outraged at what they saw as a kind of assault, and argued that the safety of the high school had been violated. Tougher Laws

Abortion providers, of course, still feel threatened by murderers such as the one who blasted a clinic in Birmingham on Jan. 29, killing a policeman and maiming a nurse. Because of the threat of violence, there are not as many doctors today willing to perform abortions.

But these providers are seeing fewer protesters trying to physically stop women from getting abortions, according to a newly published book, "Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War," by James Risen and Judy L. Thomas. Rather, a complex set of demographic reasons is behind a decline in the number of abortions, say the authors, two reporters who devote nearly half their book to an examination of Operation Rescue.

"In hindsight, there is little evidence that Operation Rescue made any significant inroads into abortion in the United States," they write.

Abortion rights advocates have countered the street warfare of Operation Rescue in the courtroom, racking up a total of about $20 million in damages against Terry and other antiabortion protesters, Benham among them, according to the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. (It says only $6,000 or so has been paid. In January a judge awarded them Terry's frequent-flier miles, worth a domestic round trip.)

Abortion rights supporters also got Congress to make impeding access to a clinic a felony, which means a five-year prison sentence, and the Supreme Court allowed one suit currently underway in Chicago to proceed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

All of which means that Flip Benham has his hands full. When he took over the leadership of Operation Rescue in 1995, the group was torn by internal dissension over escalating violence and disorganization in addition to the bankrupting lawsuits. Benham leads the more moderate wing of the group, Risen and Thomas write, and agreed that anyone who participates in a protest must sign a pledge of nonviolence.

Founder Randall Terry left Operation Rescue to become a radio talk show host heard locally on WABS-AM (780) from 3 to 4 p.m. daily and is now running for Congress in New York. (Although he says he has raised over $300,000 for his campaign in a September Republican primary, he is running in a solidly Democratic district.)

To avoid paying the legal assessments, a group leader like Benham collects no salary and puts all his personal property in his wife's name. His Garland, Tex., church underwrites his work with about $6,000 a year, said his pastor, Scott Camp, and Benham makes extra money from speeches around the country. Even the organization's name was changed -- to Operation Rescue National -- to try to avoid legal liability. "I wouldn't pay them a penny," said Benham, 49. The Obsession

Benham came to his occupation rather late in life, after college, three years in the Army and two years running the Mad Hatter Saloon in Kissimmee, Fla. After proselytizers came into the bar and showed him the error of his ways, Benham earned a master of divinity degree at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. He founded a Methodist church in Garland, but after 12 years he was asked to resign, Asbury professor Donald Joy said. "His energy was totally going to {antiabortion work}, so people who needed pastoral care weren't getting it." That church is now defunct.

Joy thinks Benham's "obsession" may come from the same well as his earlier (admitted) hard drinking. "He's a very complicated fellow," said Joy. "I'm baffled, but I do respect him as a good man."

Timothy A. Greenawalt, a classmate of Benham's at Asbury and now pastor of the Rockwall Methodist Church near Garland, opposes abortion but disagrees with Benham's tactics. Nonetheless, he admires him. "He has a sense of justice and a gift of prophecy," said Greenawalt. "I don't mean foretelling the future; what I mean is traditionally a prophet has a clear sense of right and wrong and proclaims it to the masses. Martin Luther King Jr. had the gift of prophecy. Flip has that same sense of wanting his voice to be heard."

He is clearly dramatic and bold. He has been convicted of trespassing nine times in Dallas since 1991. "Flip believes abortion is equated with murder and he's willing to do whatever it takes to stop it," said Camp.

Benham does not say that expanding his activities to protests at bookstores or Disney World is a way to get the attention that provides the lifeblood of his organization. He says the books he deems pornographic, and Disney's policy of extending insurance benefits to homosexual partners, must be met with the same fierce defiance as abortion. He got 100 people to join him protesting Disney, and press coverage all over the country. Egged on by Terry's radio commentaries, angry protesters have ripped up books by Jock Sturges, Sally Mann and David Hamilton at bookstores in 58 cities, and the Barnes & Noble company has been indicted on charges of peddling obscenity in Alabama and Tennessee. Groups in at least 26 states, including Virginia, are pressing for similar action.

Since the sentencing in Lynchburg a month ago, Benham and his supporters have posed his incarceration as a free-speech issue, an imprisonment for what he said rather than how he said it. His enemies, however, see Benham as a true believer trying to revive a dying institution, rallying his troops to a martyr's cause. "The schools campaign was a flop. They have not mobilized people," said Vicki Saporta, director of the National Abortion Federation (NAF). "This is to expand their profile and visibility. . . . When localities don't enforce trespassing laws, violence tends to escalate."

He will probably serve at least three months of his six-month sentence, according to Lynchburg law enforcement officials. However, Reyes, his codefendant, is out of jail. He is appealing his conviction, through their pro bono attorneys at the American Family Association law center out of Tupelo, Miss. Meanwhile, Reyes is continuing his studies and his protests, and through a separate lawsuit has already succeeded in getting the city council to abandon its policy of requiring a permit for demonstrations.

But Benham said he chose not to appeal. He said the reason was that under the judge's ruling he would have had to stay in Lynchburg for an unknown number of months until the appeal was heard, and he couldn't afford to do that. And everyone seems to believe that. But Commonwealth's Attorney Petty said the judge in the case did not make that order, nor did Petty ask him to. In fact, in similar misdemeanor cases other defendants have gotten permission to leave the state during their appeals. One even went to the Bahamas, Petty said. "I am in chains for Christ," Benham said, quoting Philippians. The battle is over two worldviews, he says, between those who would keep the schools "godless," keep the pornography in the bookstores and call homosexuals normal and those, like him, who would not. CAPTION: Chris D. Reyes, a co-defendant with Flip Benham, is flanked by Benham's sons, David, left, and Jason. The three Liberty University students were at the rally. Reyes is out of prison pending appeal. CAPTION: The Rev. Philip "Flip" Benham of Operation Rescue National leads the antiabortion rally at Glass High School that led to his arrest for trespassing. CAPTION: Clutching his Bible, Flip Benham, head of Operation Rescue National, starts serving his sentence.