Paul Greenberg

It just wouldn't be the holiday season without the annual squabble over Christmas decorations in public places. It's as expected as "The Little Drummer Boy." And about as monotonous. But tradition must be observed.

Here in little old Little Rock, and maybe in your town, every course was served in its proper order, much like a proper holiday meal. From the first lawyer-letter to the official response to the preliminary injunction, all rites were observed in full. There may even be appellate proceedings for dessert.

This year's legal formalities did seem less acrimonious than usual. Sure, the lawyers had a heated exchange or two for show. And some soreheads of equal but opposite opinions may still be fuming. But the general outrage didn't seem as pronounced this year. What was Caesar's was rendered unto Caesar in better spirits than usual. Maybe there's something to this Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men thing after all.

The upshot: The atheists got to erect their little booth on the grounds of the Arkansas state Capitol right behind the official nativity scene. And the only thing offended by the proximity was good taste. Maybe it was inevitable. Things do tend to get out of hand on festive occasions, as at office Christmas parties.

The folks in charge of maintaining the grounds at the Capitol made their big mistake when they forgot about that quaint old American practice called the separation of church and state. Instead of giving the hazy line between the two a wide berth, they concluded it would be permissible to put up a religious display on public property, which the state Capitol most certainly is.

Welcome as the Holy Family are, they should have been directed to the nearest private inn instead, or even offered home hospitality. Instead, they were treated as wards of the state. Surely a better solution to this seasonal wrangle could have been found than to put them in public housing.

For as soon as the nativity scene was in place, legally the Capitol grounds became an open forum for the expression of beliefs about religion pro and con. From that moment on, a court had little choice but to give the Church of Militant Atheism its say, too. Along with anybody else who wanted to get in on the act.

Next the Zoroastrians? And what about the pagans? They produced some great art. Old Praxilites was no slacker back in Athens' heyday. And did anyone remember to invite Baal? Or does he go by the name of Success now? Come one, come all! For the state isn't allowed to discriminate in these matters once it opens its grounds to one faith; then public accommodations must be open to all the public.

It's enough to make a fellow agnostic about the value of any and all such displays in the public square, even and especially if they're all-inclusive. The result tends to be the esthetic equivalent of talk radio -- loud, jumbled and argumentative.

If this garish trend continues, our Capitol grounds will start looking like one of those overcrowded bumper stickers you see that display half a dozen emblems of the world's most prominent creeds, all lined up in a row and looking as if each were trying to elbow the other out of the picture. A perfectly blank bumper sticker, like a ball cap with no emblem on it, would be a decided improvement. Oh, for a swath of green lawn with not a thing on it but grass and trees. What better testament to Nature and Nature's God?

How much trouble would it have been to set up the nativity scene on indisputably private property nearby, and so please both those who enjoy decorous decorations (count me in!) and those who know church and state should be kept as safely separated as little children in the back seat of the family car.

Let those two not always fraternal twins, Church and State, start squabbling and . . . look out! Or as Finley Peter Dunne's irrepressible Irish barkeep, Mister Dooley, would say, and did: "Religion is a quare thing. Be itself it's all right. But sprinkle a little pollytiks into it and dinnymit is bran flour compared with it. Alone it prepares a man for a better life. Combined with pollytiks it hurries him to it."

Though he lacked the stage Irish dialect, Alexis de Tocqueville was at least as perspicacious as Mister Dooley. When he made his grand American tour in the 1830s, our distinguished visitor could not help but notice the contrast between this happy republic and the bitterly divided one he'd left behind in France. One of the reasons M. de Tocqueville cited for that contrast was that here, where the spirit of liberty and that of faith are kept separate, both are free to blossom, even intertwine and support each other. But in Europe, where churches tend to be ether established or persecuted by the state, faith and liberty become bitter antagonists, each seeking to dominate the other. Good fences make good republics, too.

To vastly oversimplify the constitutional law that governs such controversies, the state is free to display sacred symbols--but only if they are no longer sacred. That is, if the Holy Family or Chanukah menorah or your symbol of choice has been desanctified. Then it becomes constitutionally kosher for the state to exhibit it. As part of an educational exhibit, for example.

It helps if the creche is surrounded by symbols of other faiths, or by just enough Santas and candy canes, elves and reindeer to disguise its spiritual significance. That way, the theory goes, the state isn't establishing a religion but putting on an educational exhibit, or maybe just having some winter-holiday fun, like a child playing with the altarpieces.

The rule of thumb in these matters is that the less tasteful the display, the more constitutional. Which is how We the long-suffering People wind up with those awful mix-and-match Christmas exhibitions that cover every holiday at the winter solstice from Chanukah to Kwanzaa. That kind of unholy spectacle can be expected whenever the always aggrandizing State lays its hands on the sacred for its own purposes -- whether educational, cultural, political, historical, commercial or all of the above.

Once the law rather than faith becomes the determining factor in such displays, any hope of authentic devotion is lost. Which is why the transient state should be told to keep its hands off the permanent things. In place of the real thing, a tepid civil religion has grown up for state occasions. And that's about as close as the state should be allowed to come to the holy. Any closer and the poor thing is out of its depths -- but deep into mischief.

There is no more efficient force in the world than good will. But instead, Americans resort to courts. Ours is, has been, and probably always will be a highly litigious society. It seems to come with the rule of law, which has its compensating benefits. So many that it's well worth the occasional dispute over just when a Christmas display on state property becomes an establishment of religion. It's not always easy to tell, which is why public officials would be wise to build a fence around the law rather than press right up against the line between church and state. The most fitting display this time of year might be a little self-restraint.