The street leading to Santa Fe High School's football stadium, home of the Indians, is named the War Path. It's off Highway 6, a mile west of Big Chief Foods. Like small towns all over Texas, this tiny Houston suburb is passionate about its local varsity, decking itself in the team colors, green and gold, on autumn Fridays when the gridiron boys go into battle.

Every fall, signs in store windows and parking lots scream, "GO INDIANS," including a portable billboard outside Santa Fe Muffler. This year the billboard offers a second exhortation: "STAND UP FOR GOD." Lois Albertine, mother of a varsity cheerleader, made a similar plea Friday night, as 3,500 fans filed into the stadium for the annual homecoming game. Standing on the War Path with a half-dozen like-minded friends, she waved a boldly lettered placard at the passing crowd.

"KEEP THE DEVIL OUT OF SANTA FE," it read.

It's an angry season for high school football traditionalists in this state, where high school football is a sacred institution. Tradition has taken a hit. A federal appeals court, reviewing a lawsuit over the alleged encroachment of religion on public education in Santa Fe, issued a ruling in February that most lawyers have interpreted as a ban on a generations-old Texas ritual: pre-kickoff prayers recited over high school stadium loudspeakers, usually by students or ministers.

From West Texas to the Arkansas border, from the Rio Grande Valley to the Panhandle plains, most (though not all) of the state's 1,076 public high schools competing in football this year have accepted their lawyers' advice, reluctantly replacing formal pregame invocations with nonsectarian moments of silence. The court ruling, railed against from pulpits and school board seats across the state, has spawned confusion and outrage, nowhere more than in Santa Fe.

"This is a religious community, and we don't want anybody coming in here trying to take that away from us," said Linda Stroud, mother of the Indians' backup quarterback. She stood with Albertine on the War Path, while in the press box high above the field, in an odd twist to the case, Santa Fe senior Marian Ward prepared to lead the stadium in prayer--protected from legal repercussions by an injunction she obtained last month in a different federal court.

"I have freedom of speech," said Ward, 18, in an interview before the game. Daughter of a Baptist pastor, she is a trumpet player in the school band and an officer of the National Honor Society, French Club, Junior Statesmen of America and a Christian student group called Turning Point. She first led the stadium in prayer before the Indians' season opener, Sept. 3. Friday's game was the team's second at home.

"It's not really about religion," she said of her decision to seek a court's permission for prayer. "It's about me having the right to say what I want to say."

Although the injunction applies only in Santa Fe, a city of 8,400 with 1,300 high school students, several school boards elsewhere in Texas are continuing with pregame invocations against their lawyers' advice, waiting for the Supreme Court to eventually resolve the question. The court has not decided yet if it will hear Santa Fe's challenge of last February's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. The issue falls in an unsettled area of the law.

"You're mixing two of our most emotional issues, football and prayer," said Shellie Hoffman, general counsel for the Texas Association of School Boards, which has received hundreds of angry calls from members. "They're having to balance a court ruling they don't like against their own personal beliefs and against the beliefs of their communities, and there's intense pressure in some cases."

Like the school board association, the Texas University Interscholastic League, which governs high school athletics in the state, has advised its member schools to stop conducting organized public prayer before games.

"It's been a great deal of frustration for superintendents, coaches, booster clubs, parents," said Charles Breithaupt, the organization's director. "And many superintendents--I won't name any--have told me, well, they're going to go ahead and pray anyway, until someone complains."

There's a cliche that football is a religion in Texas. It's not, of course. Here at the whip end of the Bible Belt, religion is the only religion. But for many Texans, high school football ranks next as a cherished cultural tradition, and they look to God to sustain it. Everything they hope for on autumn Friday nights--clean, spirited, injury-free play, culminating in victory for school and town--depends, in their view, on the Man Upstairs. Until this year, asking for His blessing through organized prayer was as much a pregame routine as rising for the national anthem.

High school football took hold in agrarian Texas early in the century as a post-harvest pastime. Many small communities, isolated from one another by vast reaches of empty land, came to define themselves by the fortunes of their teams. "It was the only game in town," said Ty Cashion, author of "Pigskin Pulpit," a history of Texas high school football coaches.

In 1920, when the first state championship game was played, just 4.5 million people lived in Texas, virtually all of them God-fearing. Now the population is pushing 20 million.

"We're not just a state full of Southern Baptists anymore," said Cashion, a historian at Sam Houston State University. The demise of the prayer tradition was inevitable, he said. "You have people who've moved here from all over the country, from Asia, the Middle East, all over the world. And being exposed to this kind of old-fashioned, southern Protestant culture, I'm sure it's a shock, and some people no doubt find it an affront."

The lawsuit that led to February's prayer ruling by the Court of Appeals was filed in 1995 by two Santa Fe families, one Mormon, the other Roman Catholic. They complained that their children had been routinely exposed to Christian proselytizing by teachers and others in school. Judge Samuel B. Kent of U.S. District Court in Galveston eventually found that the incidents had been isolated and that the proselytizing had stopped after the families sued.

As for the decades-old tradition of organized prayer at high school football games, Kent said the practice was legally permissible. He based his ruling on an earlier decision in an unrelated case by the Court of Appeals, which allowed religious messages at high school commencement exercises. The appellate court had noted that graduation day is a solemn, once-in-a-life occasion for a student, warranting a rare exception to the constitutional separation of church and state.

But Kent said Texas high school football also is special.

"For the great majority of kids that grow up in little towns like Santa Fe, . . . our hope and aspiration is that [most will] go on to college and professional careers," he said from the bench. "But the reality is, a whole lot of them won't. . . .

"As a result of that," he said, "high school football . . . is the apex of their social function. It is a very big deal to the community. The entire community turns out for these things. . . . I think, frankly, considering the academic interests of a lot of kids, football is probably a heck of a lot more important than graduation."

He said the Court of Appeals' graduation-prayer decision also was applicable to football games--but the Court of Appeals reversed his ruling in February.

After Santa Fe, in response, drafted a policy allowing only nonreligious pregame messages in which "prayers, blessings, invocations and references to a deity are prohibited," lawyer Kelly J. Coghlan argued in federal court in Houston that the school was violating the free-speech rights of his young client, Marian Ward. Unlike most lawyers, Coghlan does not read February's ruling as a blanket banning of pregame invocations. He won a judge's permission for Ward to continue leading spectators in prayer, pending further hearings on his argument.

"Dear Heavenly Father, I pray your presence in this stadium tonight," she said Friday, as fans, players, cheerleaders, band members and others stood in silence, heads bowed. Out on the War Path, meanwhile, about 50 members of Houstonians for Secular Humanism and similar demonstrators stood with signs. "FREEDOM OF AND FROM RELIGION," one read. "PRAYER IS PRIVATE," declared another.

On the public-address system, Ward prayed for "a good, clean and fun game," and asked God "to keep all of us safe."

"GOD IS DEAF," said a sign on the street.

But Ward went on.

"In Jesus's name, Amen."

In the game, Santa Fe fell to the Texas City Stings, 50-0.

CAPTION: Richard Chancey, Sean Oittinen and Tom Crowley debate Robert Lee, right, youth pastor from Gulf Coast Four Square Church, outside the stadium.

CAPTION: Santa Fe, Tex., High School senior Marian Ward, 18, delivers a prayer before the start of a football game. Pregame prayer has been part of tradition.