The devil gets to keep riding around in a San Francisco cab, the San Francisco taxi commission decreed on Tuesday.

After nearly half an hour of discussion and debate, the commission brought the weight of government to the question of whether to grant a request by a San Francisco cab driver seeking to retire Medallion No. 666 because of the number's association with Satan.

The debate was the best show to play City Hall in some time. It featured commissioners bickering good-naturedly with one another, the head of the cab drivers union arguing before the board with red horns on his head and several other cabbies pleading for common sense, a quality not always found in the stone building at Civic Center.

At issue was the request of veteran driver Michael Byrne, who said he has had bad luck and misfortune since being assigned the supposedly cursed number last year.

Commission President Paul Gillespie said he favored granting the request, "and hopefully we can do this quickly so we never have to deal with this again.''

But with the underworld, the Book of Revelation and the Mark of the Beast at stake, quickness was not to be. Six cabbies had something to say during public comment.

"How dare you take Lucifer's number away,'' said Thomas George-Williams, president of the cab drivers union, who was sporting the red horns. "This is a serious issue.''

A cabbie named Tom warned the commission that it was "opening a can of worms" and would soon be deluged with requests to retire other numbers. A cabbie named Barry pointed out that 666 was the address of SS Peter and Paul's Church on Filbert Street, an outfit not thought to be in Satan's pocket. A cabbie named Grasshopper said it was a "bad idea to get into mysticism and voodoo.''

And then the commissioners batted the issue about, and it was clear that Gillespie was the lone voice favoring the retirement of the number. Others seemed worried about opening the can of worms, too -- the phrase itself being spoken by at least three commissioners.

"Where does it end?'' said Vice President Patricia Breslin. "I lived at an address of 666 and I did not go over to the dark side.''

Commissioner Malcolm Heinecke said he might approve the request if the commission decided to charge a "significant fee.'' Commissioner Ton Oneto pointed out that the number had been around for at least 30 years and San Francisco has somehow survived.

And then the clerk called for a formal vote, and the commission voted 5-1 to grant sympathy to the devil and keep No. 666 on the books. Only Gillespie -- who said he had once driven cab No. 666 himself and was versed with its implications -- voted to kick the number out.

Byrne himself did not show up to get the bad news -- and could not be reached for comment afterward.

When it was all over, the keenest minds at City Hall observed that the commission had discussed the matter for exactly 24 minutes (2 plus 4 equals 6) on the 24th of the month (2 plus 4 equals 6) in a meeting that began at half past 6 o'clock.