Paul Greenberg

Ah, tradition! What would we do without it? It just wouldn't be the season without a squabble over religious displays on public property. By now it's as much a part of Christmas as holly and mistletoe, if not nearly so nice.

Forget that business about the still small voice. Religion in this blessed land, at least when it become entangled with law, inspires not silent devotion but loud contention. So it was only a matter of time before somebody objected to the nativity scene on the grounds of the state Capitol here in Little Rock.

This time the objection came from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, bless its heart. It's headquartered in (of course) Madison, Wis., which is the capital not only of that lovely if chilly state but of liberal - excuse me, progressive - thought in those cool climes.

This lawyer letter from Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of aforesaid foundation, came complete with the usual season's greeting in these confrontations, to wit, a not very veiled threat. If the State of Arkansas doesn't respond to her demand that it take Christ out of its official Christmas, or at least evict the Holy Family from the Capitol grounds, she said her group "would have to take further action."

The message was clear: Mary, Joseph, the baby, even the donkey and the wise men bearing gifts, plus a shepherd, a couple of sheep and the inevitable camel they all must go. After all these years, indeed centuries, there's still no room for them at the inn, at least if the Freedom From Religion Foundation has its cold-hearted way.

The nativity scene, says the foundation, "sends an unlawful message of endorsement of Christianity." Such language is par for the ill-tempered course. Why must the protesters in this all-too-familiar Christmas pageant pronounce upon the law as if they were judges? Couldn't they just write a polite letter? Or would it come too close to a religious act to show some grace?

Manners tend to sway us in these latitudes; threats don't. Indeed, they usually only harden us in our original course, which is what seems to have happened in this case. A spokesman for the Arkansas secretary of state's office promptly rose to the defense of the nativity scene with some equal but opposite legalese: "It's displayed on the periphery of the Capitol grounds. It's not in the Capitol building. It's just a part of the decorations celebrating all aspects of the holiday season." So relax, folks. It's OK. The Holy Family is just another decoration.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.