The U.S. Postal Service has just begun distributing what may be the first religious stamp not issued for the Christmas holidays -- a 20-cent stamp commemorating St. Francis of Assisi.

Belmont Faries, chairman of the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, said, "This stamp is more plainly religious than any other we have issued," but he noted, "we did not say 'Saint' Francis, just 'Francis.' "

Faries said the committee recommended that the stamp be created after Rep. Peter J. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) presented Postmaster General William F. Bolger with a petition from 10,000 constituents requesting it. The stamp, which commemorates the 800th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the Franciscan order, was issued Oct. 7 in San Francisco, which is named after the Catholic saint.

Faries noted that a number of stamps issued over the years have focused on religious figures who were famous for other accomplishments, such as two stamps on Father Jacques Marquette, marking his exploration of the Upper Mississippi River.

Another stamp honored Roger Williams, the Protestant minister who founded Rhode Island, and another commemorated a civil rights march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Earlier this year, the Postal Service issued a stamp featuring Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in North America, as a symbol of religious freedom. The stamp included words written by George Washington, after he was welcomed by the Newport, R.I., congregation.

"Anyone can recommend a stamp to the committee, and our agenda is usually crowded with new stamp suggestions," Faries said. "But the final decision always belongs to the Postmaster General because he's the one who's going to get sued." Each year, the committee's recommendations result in 15 to 18 new stamps.

Faries and Postal Service officials said they have received no complaints about the Francis of Assisi stamp, although they occasionally hear about some of the Christmas stamps.

This year's Christmas stamps will feature a variety of religious themes. One stamp will be secular: a puppy and a kitten playing in the snow.