Signs of Season Include Legal Spats Over Church-State Issues

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

It's the holidays, a busy time for Santa and shoppers.

And lawyers.

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.

In tiny Exmore, on Virginia's Eastern Shore, officials are ignoring a demand that they remove or alter a plastic Nativity scene in front of Town Hall.

"Spines have stiffened," said Herbert Gilsdorf, town manager in Exmore, population 1,500.

Three national legal groups are involved in the dispute there. They disagree over whether a Christmas tree-shaped ornament the town placed on a nearby telephone pole proves -- or disproves -- that the Nativity scene is just part of a broader, generally secular display. Under court rulings, a Christmas tree is not considered a religious symbol.

But all of that is splitting hairs for officials in Exmore. "To be brutally honest, I don't think it would matter to elected officials whether Rudolph or Frosty or whomever were [on the pole], they'd stick with the manger," Gilsdorf said.

Liberty Counsel, a conservative national legal group that sells "I love CHRISTmas" bumper stickers for $3, has received hundreds of holiday-related calls and e-mails, about double the volume as the rest of the year. Mat Staver, the group's chairman, blames a combination of "extreme political correctness" and what he believes is a desire to eliminate religion from America's public culture.

Critics of groups such as Liberty Counsel, one of the organizations involved in Exmore, say they exacerbate the cultural divide. Critics point to Liberty Counsel's five-year-old "Friend or Foe" fundraising campaign, which lists disputes across the country in which the group is involved. For instance, there's the student Bible club in a Massachusetts public school that was stopped from handing out candy canes with religious messages attached and the Florida court clerk who was told she couldn't put up a Nativity scene in her office during Christmas.

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