E. Gordon DeMeritt was driving his family home from church one Sunday evening last fall when, just as they passed the Luray Drive-In south of town, his 7-year-old son exclaimed: "Boy, would Ed like to see that!"

"That," as DeMeritt, a devout Baptist, discovered, was the silver screen image of a supine, 20-foot-tall woman writhing beneath bedsheets while an equally huge, bare-chested man loomed above her, apparently considering his next move.

There was no indecision on the part of the DeMeritts, however. A 10-second glimpse of several hundred square feet of technicolor flesh just a stone's throw off a public road was definitely not the sort of thing they felt their son Ward or, for that matter, his classmate Ed should see. So right there they decided something had to be done.

So began Page County's "R-Rated Film War," as the local papers call it, much to DeMeritt's chagrin.

In the 11 months since the DeMeritts came eyeball to navel with what they consider a morally offensive film -- it was "The Sensuous Nurse" -- residents of this rural Shenandoah County of 19,300 persons, situated 80 miles west of Washington, have been treated to events that few can recall the likes of.

Normally easy-going county supervisors' meetings have echoed with impassioned pleas for public decency. Citizens have been asked to sign petitions warning that the showing of "adult" films at the drive-in "will have a severe effect on the moral health" of the community. The theater owner, who cries "censorship" and says that movies with suggestive titles are the only ones people pay to see nowadays, has been hauled into court on charges of showing movies that could adversely affect a juvenile.

The community debate has even begun popping up in out-of-town newspaper editorials under headlines such as "Lurid in Luray." All of which amuses, troubles and puzzles people here, said Mayor Ralph Dean.

"If you go out and talk with the people in the county, they could care less about what's playing at the theater," he says. "As I see it, there's no way you can drive past the drive-in at 55 miles per hour and even see the screen anyway. Not if you're keeping your eyes on the road."

To Gordon DeMeritt, a tall, thin, bearded man of 31 who moved his family from New York in 1977 to get away from bad influences there, it is an extremely important matter, however.

"Basically, I see it as a community issue," he says. "Does this man have the right to display on the highway anything he wants to display? . . . I wouldn't expose them [his children] to it at home, so why should I let one man's business decision affect them?"

To 34-year-old theater owner Charles E. Bowen, a lifelong county resident, it is an attempt to regulate the film appetites of county residents and therefore an act that would outrage Virginia's Founding Fathers.

"This is a First Amendment fight," proclaims Bowen, a large man whose Lincoln Continental license plates bear the word MOVIE. "Besides, I've never shown an X-rated film there. These are films that you see on cable up in Northern Virginia."

To date, Bowen has won the only two real skirmishes of the war. Early on, the County Board of Supervisors declined to act to regulate the drive-in's movie fare after the county attorney discovered there was a state criminal statute that might apply.

Then last month, a juvenile court judge threw out the charges subsequently filed against Bowen under the criminal statute when he learned that no allegedly offensive films were to be used as evidence, according to Commonwealth's Attorney John T. Hennessy. The reason: Hennessy's office had been unable to get the $450 needed to arrange for a private screening of the films.

"This was a considerable amount," Hennessy said.

At the center of the controversy is a decaying drive-in on Rte. 340 about 2 miles south of Luray, which until the film debate was more famous for its limestone caves. The drive-in features a large, peeling screen that has as a backdrop green Shenandoah fields and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The screen is easily seen along a quarter-mile stretch of Rte. 340.

In the last year, it has featured popular films like "Taps," "Star Trek II," "On Golden Pond" and "Grease II," as well as films bearing racier titles such as "Sex and the Other Woman" and "Cindy and Donna." And inevitably, Bowen says, those that draw the best are those like "Sex and the Other Woman."

"We've had a number of requests for more sexually oriented movies," he says. "We attempt to show movies the people want to see . . . . Hollywood isn't making movies that we have to see. Hollywood is making movies that we want to see."

Bowen says that, at one point, he was contacted by a lawyer working with DeMeritt who asked why didn't he show "Christian" movies so that committed Christian families could attend the theater. Bowen says the lawyer suggested, among others, "Chariots of Fire."

"I'd already booked that," Bowen says. "And you know, when it showed, not a single, solitary one of them DeMeritt and his supporters showed up."

And what was the movie that grossed the least in his three-year operation of the drive-in? Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," says Bowen.

The fight, he says, has only made him more committed to doing business as he sees fit.

"We're not going to change our method of operation one iota," Bowen says. "We are neither going to book less nor more of these movies. We have some scheduled for some weekends this fall."

That's neither good news nor bad, however, to local viewers like Donald Good, 25, of Luray. "Why," he says of the sexual fare offered at the drive-in, "it's nothing I never seen before, you know."

But to Randy Breeden, 20, it's something to look forward to. "Gives you something to do. 'Cause there ain't much to do around here," he says. " 'Less you go down here and shoot pool."