GetReligion readers who pay close attention to church-state issues this time of year -- also known as the "Christmas wars" -- just knew that this story was coming. Actually, in this case we are talking about a specific battle in the larger war that breaks out every year in mid-November, or thereabouts. It's the battle over the creche in the public square (usually a civic lawn).
I am referring to the Supreme Court instructions establishing the concept of equal access for "holiday" decorations. As I put this in a Scripps Howard column several years ago, which focused on the concept of a "secular" Menorah:
We live in an age in which government officials -- local, state and national -- are wrestling with holiday trees, menorahs, creches, angels, ears of corn, Santa statues, plastic snowmen and a host of other secular and sacred objects that church-state partisans keep dragging into the public square. ...
There are few guidelines carved in stone. The court did establish what many activists call the "reindeer rules" that allow displays of religious symbols on public property as long as they are surrounded by other symbols, which are usually borrowed from pop culture.
Pop culture? Actually, I was referring to that reindeer allegedly named Rudolph, Santa Claus (with elves) and similar figures.
For half a century, a decorated Christmas tree and a Nativity scene have stood on the grounds of Loudoun's courthouse every holiday season, a defining element of the county's holiday celebration. In recent years, the traditional Christian symbols have been joined by displays of symbols from the Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths.
Now, after a long and heated debate that began last year over the legality and management of religious displays on the courthouse's public grounds, 10 holiday displays are on view this month: a Christmas tree, three manger scenes, five atheist displays and a mannequin arrangement featuring "the chosen one," Luke Skywalker of "Star Wars."
It's a complicated and quite substantial story. That's a compliment.
As always, some Christians and some atheists in this battle are firing the key shots in an old, old war. In this case, what really interests me in this story is this question: How is this first come, first served approach is working in other parts of the nation?
It's a sad story, but a real one. For those who don't know my point of view, I think that the civic lawns should be totally bare. Then Christian clergy and laypeople could lobby others to put creches on the lawns of dozens or hundreds of their churches and the front lawns of thousands of believers. Light up the whole town, if that's the goal.
As always, the solution to most issues of free speech is more free speech.
So put up a Nativity scene -- I vote for Dec. 24-Jan. 6 -- on a lawn that you legally control. Invite reporters and camera crews, if you wish. Don't invite the lawyers. Give their fees to needy families. And please avoid all temptations to sponsor civic celebrations of "Happy Life Day."