The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to tackle a controversy that arises across the country every Christmas: Whether government-sponsored nativity scenes violate the principle of separation of church and state.

At issue in the case accepted for review yesterday was a life-sized creche sponsored by the city of Pawtucket, R.I., and displayed in a private park as part of a larger holiday display of lights and Santas.

A U.S. District Court, backed up by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said the display constituted a government endorsement of a particular religion, Christianity, in violation of the First Amendment.

In its appeal to the justices, Pawtucket said its nativity scene was a small part of a "dominantly secular" holiday spectacle, a cultural display designed in part to put Christmas shoppers in a gift-buying mood.

The city said the Constitution does not require governments to "aggressively root out from its cultural observances all vestiges of the well recognized religious tradition of the American people."

While lower courts confront this dispute every year, often with contradictory results, the Supreme Court has not squarely addressed the issue. Yesterday's case, Lynch et al. vs. Donnelly et al., was originated by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In other action yesterday:

* The court agreed to consider the issue of preventive detention for juveniles. The justices said they would review a New York law allowing judges to hold juveniles without bail before trial whenever "there is a serious risk" that the defendant might commit an adult crime if released.

Challenged by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, the law was invalidated by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case, Schall et al. vs. Martin et al., will be argued during the court's next term.

* The justices said they would consider a libel claim brought by entertainer Shirley Jones and her husband, Marty Ingels, against the National Enquirer. According to the couple's lawyers, the article said Ingels " 'has terrorized his staff, cheated stars, outraged advertisers and scandalized Hollywood' and 'has one of the most notorious casting couches in all of Hollywood.' " It also said Jones " 'has been driven to drink by his bizarre behavior.' "

The issue in the case, Calder and South vs. Shirley Jones and Marty Ingels, is whether a court in California has jurisdiction over a suit filed against the Florida-based Enquirer and whether a special strict test of jurisdiction must be applied because of the First Amendment implications of a libel suit.

The California Court of Appeal, overturning a lower court, said no special test was required and allowed the $20 million claim to proceed.

* The court declined to review actor Mickey Rooney's unsuccessful attempt to force the motion picture industry to share the profits from Rooney movies dating back to 1932.