LAST year it was Pawtucket. Now it's Scarsdale. Each the battleground for what seems to have become a perennial controversy over Christmas creches. Frankly the whole thing should start to tax the public's patience. Nativity scenes are supposed to inspire goodwill and brotherly love, not litigation. Such symbols should represent joy and gladness, not be offered as courtroom exhibits.
Of course, there are serious issues. Among them: sorting out constitutional boundaries of separation between church and state, possible imposition of one group's religious beliefs on others, the autonomy of municipal officials in making their own rules regarding use of public property.
But these legitimate questions are often upstaged by a clash of political agendas. Some creche supporters clearly want to impose their ideas on others. They insist on affirming that America is a ''Christian'' nation, forgetting that diversity has historically cemented religious freedom and the right of the individual to private worship. Many opponents simply want to lock out any religious dimension from the public sector.
More than a dozen courts across the nation have attempted to sort out the issues, with varying results. The US Supreme Court took a crack at it last term in the case involving Pawtucket, R.I. And in a razor-thin decision (5 to 4), the high tribunal ruled that this small New England community could display a Nativity scene on public property, paid for by public money. It said that the Constitution does not require total separation of church and state but allows ''accommodation, not merely tolerance of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any.''
That might have settled the dispute. But there were special circumstances. Pawtucket mixed in some nonreligious symbols - Santa Clauses and snowmen - with wise men, camels, and the manger. That seemed to fortify the city's argument that the display was festive rather than ritualistic.
So instead of being laid to rest, the controversy now has resurfaced in Scarsdale, a posh New York suburb with a substantial non-Christian population. Here a private group backs the creche, and the symbols are all religious. No Frostie. No Rudolph. The community's political leaders oppose the Nativity display on the basis that it might trigger strife between Christians and Jews.
The Supreme Court evidently sees enough of a difference between the issues in Pawtucket and Scarsdale that it has agreed to review the latter case during its present term. There will be no determination before Christmas, however.
Among other things, the court may have to decide whether local autonomy - a principle it has generally favored - is more important than religious ''accommodation,'' the prevailing legal concept that underpinned the Pawtucket decision.
Not to be underestimated is the court's reading of the present public mood. Will the justices perceive a desire to scale the so-called wall of separation between church and state in certain instances? Polls favoring school prayer may indicate this. And the success or failure of action in Congress to mandate moments of silence in public school classrooms and public aid to parochial schools could signal the way the court may go.
The high court is not the only one involved. Lower courts or local policymakers will rule on similar issues in a number of cities and towns from Augusta, Maine, to Santa Monica, Calif.
Ideally, these matters would be settled out of court. Most of us would just feel better if matters surrounding Christmas could be amicably adjudicated among people of goodwill, rather than placed on a judge's docket.
Some religious leaders are moving in this direction. The December issue of Church and State, the publication of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, reports: ''In the aftermath of the Pawtucket decision, the social action committee of Conservative Judaism urged rabbis across the country to meet with Christian leaders, civic groups, and government officials in their communities to explain Jewish concerns about Nativity scenes on public property.''
Several religious leaders suggest that such dialogue could forestall interfaith hostility and resolve disputes over creches before they got to court.
A simple solution would be for religious groups to erect Christmas displays on their own property and pay for them with their own money. Non-Christian groups could also offer presentations consistent with their traditions and observances.
This is a season for a coming together - not a tearing asunder by adversarial proceedings.