The bell rang at 8:15 a.m. and Mary Elliott began teaching class at Fonde Elementary public school, as she does every day, by reading a Bible story to her fourth-graders. Today the story is about Noah's Ark.

"God said to Noah, 'I will destroy all living things because the world is filled with evil and violence and he ordered Noah to make an ark," Elliott read. "Then came the flood. That's a big rainstorm. Who remembers how long it rained? "

Hands shot up.

"Forty days and 40 nights," replied Keith Kyte, 9, who prays to get "good grades" when he forgets his homework and says that "sometimes it works."

Before lunch, there is grace. In some classes, teachers opt for a moment of silence. At Murphy High School, a morning prayer is read over the the public address system.

God and prayer are alive and well in the public schools of this heavily Roman Catholic city settled by French missionaries in 1711--a pocket of the Deep South yet to be tamed by the U.S. Supreme Court and its rulings against prayer in public schools.

This school board, one of the most openly defiant in the country, is ignoring two decades of Supreme Court rulings separating church and state, and Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.'s order last Wednesday halting controversial state-sponsored prayer sessions in public schools.

Teachers such as Elliott have been advised by school officials to keep doing what they've always done.

"We're still praying," said attorney Dan Alexander, the school board president, who claims to have found a legal loophole in Powell's order.

"If someone doesn't give them the Supreme Court the finger every now and then, nothing ever changes."

Powell last week prevented Alabama from enforcing its 1982 law permitting public school prayer after Ishmail Jaffree, the agnostic father of three Mobile schoolchildren, asked for an emergency stay.

Jaffree, a legal services attorney, said his children are humiliated every time they march into the hall to avoid prayer sessions as the only way to "protect their First Amendment rights."

"My children are outcasts," he said. "They can't find playmates. Children tease them. They are being tossed about in a sea of confusion. But someone has to stand up to public officials who are telling people to disobey the laws."

After officials ignored his request that classroom praying be stopped, Jaffree sued the teachers and school board members last May for $115,000.

To the chagrin of believers in this conservative town, where bumper stickers proclaim, "Kids Need to Pray, Too," Powell set aside an unusual order by a federal judge in Mobile who reversed 20 years of legal precedent by ruling last month that federal courts are powerless to stop classroom worship.

U.S. District Court Judge W. Brevard Hand portrayed his own action as a "cry in the wilderness" as he ruled against Jaffree's challenge to the state law that allows teachers to lead willing students in a prayer at the start of each class.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule on Jaffree's formal appeal.

Meanwhile, prayer prevails at public schools like Fonde, as it has without interruption since the Supreme court ruled in cases dating to 1962 that officially sponsored prayer and Bible-reading in public schools violate the Constitution.

Even local religious leaders like Catholic Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, among those opposed to such practices, have been powerless to stop it.

"After all, this is Alabama," said James Hamner, Fonde's principal.

"You can no more keep prayer and Bible-reading down than you can keep black people segregated in 1983. Prayer is as much a part of our culture as the turnip greens and cornbread we serve in the cafeteria."

"The Supreme Court is power hungry," Elliott said. "Their motives are misguided. I need prayer to get through the day."

In an unofficial survey of her 30 students, no one voted against school prayer.

"If someone told me I couldn't pray, I wouldn't like it," said Kim Hill, 10, clutching a family Bible. "I'd go pray in the girls' bathroom or at my desk."