The scenario has become as much a part of Christmas as decorating the tree and singing carols. A cross or a cre`che is placed, as it has been for many years, on public land, and a neighbor sues to have it removed. Also traditionally, the attorneys for the complainant are from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The neighbor who would chill the warmth of Christmas is advised to move somewhere else, such as Russia or Libya. And editorial writers urge the ACLU to cease this unseemly harassment and move on to more substantive civil liberties concerns.

Columnists, such as Charles Krauthammer, also chide the ACLU and call for "a joyous competition of religious traditions" that would come from the state's encouragement of "a healthy pluralism of religious expression." Let thousands of crosses and menorahs bloom. Wherever.

Last December, in Hyde Park, Vt., a citizen about to have a court hearing looked at a cross atop a Christmas tree on the courthouse lawn. He was thinking about pluralism, top and bottom. He asked his lawyer whether she thought his being a Jew would count against him in this place.

His question brought me back to my childhood -- before the Supreme Court began issuing a series of decisions illuminating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: the state shall not support or prefer any religion or all religions. As a boy, seeing city hall and other public buildings decked with crosses and other Christian symbols, I had no doubt that there was a national religion. It was theirs -- the Christians'.

These days, little is heard after Christmas about the lawsuits that dim the holiday cheer each year. But they do go on, with final decisionssometimes not coming for months -- almost in time for a new round of warfare between the grinches and the majority that wants only to be left alone with its traditions.

Among the cases still bristling, is one that has to do with that cross in front of the courthouse in Hyde Park. Valerie White, the lawyer for the Jewish client, moved to have the cross removed. She did not make herself the most unpopular person in the county because of her client. White, a Unitarian, is herself a strong believer in the Establishment Clause -- all the more so, she says, when the quintessential symbol of a particular religion is in place in front of the public courthouse.

Two judges at the courthouse, showing their joyous respect for religious pluralism, have refused to speak to White, which would make me somewhat anxious were I one of her clients. And the letters to the local newspapers have been overwhelmingly of the view that White does not understand Christmas or the American form of government. "It is time the American people rose up and put a stop to one person, or a handful of people, imposing their will on 3,000," said one letter writer.

The cross has been at the courthouse during the Christmas season for 30 years, having been erected in memory of a widely respected young man who died in a sawmill accident. It has long since become more than a memorial, however. In 1985, petitions signed by more than 200 residents of Hyde Park demanded the cross remain as "a symbol of our Christianity." The name of the man originally memorialized does not appear on the petitions.

The cross did remain through last Christmas because, although a federal magistrate granted a preliminary injunction, the final decision will be made by a federal judge who, presumably, will have something to say before next Christmas.

The magistrate, Jerome Niedermeier, is now about as unpopular in Hyde Park and its environs as White. In a careful 30-page decision, he took account of both the sensibilities of the townspeople and the imperatives of the First Amendment. With a clarity that Hugo Black might have admired, the magistrate noted:

"The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment guarantees the right of each person of this country to practice his or her religion without government interference. It does not, however, permit government to assist, endorse or encourage the free exercise of one particular religion over another. Government must remain neutral."

In this instance, a cross on county property, in front of a courthouse, "has the effect, although perhaps unintentionally, of communicating a message not only of government endorsement by the village of Hyde Park but judicial endorsement by the county court. . . {T}he Constitution, and in this case the Establishment Clause, cannot be changed by the longstanding tradition of a community, any more than race discrimination can be validated because of community practice."

Next December, in towns and cities around the country, some folks will continue to try to put the First Amendment back into Christmas, while others will denounce them for not respecting the joys of religious pluralism. And the ACLU will be bastinadoed for imposing the Constitution on traditionally resistant Americans.