?Tis the season for lawyers

christmas warsThe best way to put a buzzkill on the typical Christmas War story is to focus on who benefits the most from the battles. If every story on Nativity scenes on public land mentioned the amount of money the lawyers were taking in, people might view the whole debate differently. Along these lines, one of my favorite Christmas war stories this year came buried in The Washington Post about a week ago by Michelle Boorstein. Here is the gist of the story, centered in Exmore, Va.:

Attorneys who specialize in religious expression say they get a spike in calls in November and December, with people calling about everything from public school choirs singing religious songs to Nativity scenes on government property. Some are for, some are against, and some are public officials trying to find out how to avoid being sued.

While the Supreme Court has handed down multiple rulings about religious expression, including several about holiday displays, each case turns on the details, which means fertile ground for competing legal opinions and disagreement.

Exactly how prominent was the Nativity scene on the town green? Was it the only holiday display there? Were the students handing out Christmas cards at school standing where other students couldn't avoid passing?

The questions are endless, and so are the tensions.

The story goes on to summarize what seems to be a typical small-town legal debate over how public Christmas holiday expressions are allowed to be. This is all due to vague legal language that governs this issue. Lawyers have plenty of wiggle room, but this is hardly unique in the law.

By focusing the story on the lawyers rather than conflicting sides of the debate, Boorstein is able to deal with the legal aspect of the issue rather than the never-ending back and forth that seems to always happen with these stories. This perspective also allows the story to end as no doubt so many of these Christmas-related legal battles end:

But the disputes remain, and remain bitter. In Exmore, [town manager Herbert Gilsdorf] noted that the town is predominantly Southern Baptist and Methodist and said the only people who complained about the Nativity scene were from Richmond, Norfolk and Washington -- "particularly in Washington," he said.

[Ayesha Khan, legal director at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State], whose group requested the town change or take down its display, said the person who brought the issue to Americans United is from Exmore but wants to remain anonymous. "This whole area of law, people are very frightened to come forward," Khan said.

All sides agree the issue will vanish -- literally, if nothing else -- in a matter of days.

"We're stalling until Christmas," Gilsdorf said. "You think we're stupid?"

Reporters who find themselves on the Christmas wars beat should check to see what the lawyers involved in the case are getting paid or what their typical hourly rate is. I am not quite sure what that will do to the Christmas spirit of the readers, but it is certainly a part of the story worth telling.

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