Robert Padget was turning his car around in front of this town's liquor store recently when he suddenly changed his mind.

"I said, 'Lord' a mercy, someone will think sure I'm coming out of the liquor store," the 35-year-old gas station attendant said with a shudder. "So I just kept driving by.I went three more blocks, I felt so guilty."

Padget's nervousness is understandable. A political and religious battle over a Sept. 12 local referendum to allow restaurants and social clubs to serve liquor by the drink for the first time has split this normally quiet Blue Ridge Mountain community wide open.

"They say if you have liquor by the drink, you'll have more rapes, murders, traffic fatalities, break-ins and families going hungry," complained Mayor Tom Sobol, a supporter of the "Gosh a mighty, all we moonshiner. "Gosh a mighty, all we wanted was some finer restaurants."

The referendum was scheduled after the North Carolina General Assembly narrowly passed a bill in June to allow local votes on liquor by the drink after 70 years of what is now the nation's strictest prohibition.

But only 46 of the 100 counties, and 83 cities and towns in dry counties, have state liquor stores, and they are, according to the law, the only ones eligible for the referendum. And only one other town and three counties have succeeded so far in scheduling votes.

The first is on Sept. 8 in Mecklenburg County, which contains Charlotte, the state's largest and most cosmopolitan city. Bartending courses are already popular there in anticipation.

But Black Mountain is different. Evangelist Billy Graham's headquarters is two miles away, and an estimated 25,000 people flock to eight large religious retreats and assemblies in the thickly forested surrounding Swannanoa Valley each summer.

And that has made the anti-liquid fight different for the 3,500 mostly blue-collar residents here, the so-called "buckle" on the Bible Belt. Few people are neutral.

"To me it's the same thing as a massage parlor or a striptease joint," said John Mundy, an industrial engineer and a leader of the drive. "Alcohol is one of the best tools the devil has got for destructions of the family. It leads to child abuse, broken homes, divorce, wife beatings, fights and things like that."

Mundy who won't eat in the only restaurant in town that serves beer, warned that pro liquor people may face severe consequences.

"If a man goes and votes for it he'll stand before God and be accountable for supporting sin," he said. "No man can play with fire and not get burned. To vote for it is in the same category with a drunkard in the streets or the man who beats his wife and child twice a day."

Ruth Brandon, the only one of the town's five-member Board of Alderman who voted against scheduling the referendum and the only Republicans, says she thinks liquor by the drink will inevitably lead "to open bars and saloons and prostitution and so on."

She dismissed supporters' claims that liquor will attract new business and improve restaurants. "No one is going to come downtowns with drunks wandering around," she warned.

Several churches have circulated petitions to call fo an election to close to call for an election to close the 7-year-old state Alcohol Beverage Control store. Closing the store, which sold nearly $1 million worth of liquor last year, much of it to bootleggers serving neighboring dry counties, would under the new state law automatically kill liquor-by-the-drink in Black Mountain.

The petitions haven't been turned in, but Mayor Sohol is worried. He says the town would lose nearly $125,000 a year more than 18 percent of the town's annual budget, if the store closed.

"We're going to be in one chaotic condition if we lose that income," he said. "No question but we'd have to cut our police department and our streets department. Our entire recreation program would be eliminated."

Closing the store would also bring bootleggers back to Black Mountain, according to Tim Holt, dispatcher for the one-car fleet of the Blue Diamond Cab Co. Cabbies were the town's leading bootleggers before the ABC store opened.

The antiliquor forces so far seem to have the upper hand. Though a local newspaper poll of 50 people showed a 2-to-1 majority favoring the liquor bill, dry forces have organized meetings, passed pamphlets, preached sermons and invited speakers from the state's Christian Action League to rail against the devil rum. The wets have done nothing.

"I haven't seen a push for it, but I've seen a big push against it," said W. L. Wheelon, manager of the ABC store. "It doesn't look good."

David Hamilton, who serves beer in the town's only bar, the Cherry Street Saloon, says he now gets several phone calls a night from neighborhood crusaders.

"They would love to close this place down," he said. "But then what would they talk about? You'd think every girl in town was being molested and everyone's daughter was being seduced, to talk to people in town."

Woodrow Propst, a 64-year-old former moonshiner, says the thought of prohibition is enough to drive a man to drink.

"Course, this fancy liquor don't taste half as good as the white lightning I used to make," he said with a smile. "That always the best liquor by the drink in these parts."