I sincerely wish that you may enjoy the holiday and/or celebration of your religious, ethnic or socio-political choice over the coming weeks whenever it/they may fall and whatever it/they may be so named ...

Now if this card still makes someone angry, the hell with 'em.

When a friend of mine sent the card bearing that message, I thought it was funny. Now I'm not so sure. "Merry Christmas," it seems, is turning out to be bad form -- maybe even illegal.

A Loudoun County principal, apparently stung by a lawsuit that accuses him and several other school officials of unconstitutionally encouraging student prayer, recently asked the school's newspaper staff not to use the word "Christmas" in its late December issue.

The stores are full of cards that, while not as circumspect as the Dale Cards specimen cited above, are careful to eliminate the last vestige of meaning, religious or secular. No manger, of course, but also no Santa Claus; not even a holly leaf, lest that evoke the dread Christmas.

Friends who used to give you a hearty "Merry Christmas!" now offer a generic "Season's Greetings" or, if they're super careful, "Have a good one." It's too much.

Of course I know Christmas is a specifically Christian holiday, and this country -- being home to adherents of every religion, and of no religion -- should be careful not to enforce a particular view on anyone. Still, it does seem to me that there is some difference between "Merry Christmas" and religious intolerance.

What I'm talking about may be as much a matter of etiquette as of constitutional law. It is a poor host who, no matter how agnostic, cannot allow his guest to offer a pre-dinner grace; it is an ungrateful guest who, however irreligious, would challenge his host's quiet thanksgiving. And it is a hopeless sorehead who would take offense at a hearty Christmas (or Hanukah or Ramadan or Kwanzaa) greeting. My only requirement would be: no argument, no proselytizing. It is bad manners, not a noble affirmation of faith, to make one's friends and colleagues uncomfortable. But it is a species of intolerance to require the religious to make a secret of their beliefs.

There are limits, of course. The Jackson, Miss., public school principal who was disciplined for allowing a student to recite a daily prayer over the public address system should have known better. That comes too close to "official" prayer that the American Civil Liberties Union has long opposed and which the Supreme Court has correctly ruled unacceptable.

Unfortunately, the ACLU also opposes the moment-of-silence substitute for school prayer. Why? After all, the constitutional requirement is that the government not "establish" religion, not that it root out religion.

But the question goes beyond the Constitution. Almost every commentator on the current scene bemoans the increased violence, lowered ethical standards and loss of civility that mark American society. Is the decline of religious influence no part of what is happening to us? Is it not just possible that anti-religious bias masquerading as religious neutrality is costing more than we have been willing to acknowledge?

Dennis Praeger, a Jewish talk-show host, has proposed a test for those who insist that religion serves no useful public purpose. Imagine that you round a corner one dark night and come face to face with four or five strapping young men. Can you honestly say you wouldn't feel safer if you knew they had just left Bible study?

One thing more. The people I still consider the society's "good guys" -- political liberals -- already have abandoned patriotism, moral uprightness and other public virtues to the tender mercies of the conservatives. The religious intolerance of the intellectual left now threatens to leave the right wing as the foremost defender of religion. That, for me, is a scary prospect.

Why is it such a difficult thing to be tolerant of someone else's religious beliefs without abandoning one's own? Why is it so hard to understand that having a core of beliefs -- including religious beliefs -- is not a bad thing?

Why, to return to my friend's clever card, has it become politically incorrect to say a simple "Merry Christmas"?

Merry Christmas.