AT a glance, it seems laughable. Grown men and women here in Franklin, N.H., are locked in a fist-waving debate over a fat guy in a red suit who doesn't really exist.
Santa Claus, meet Murphy Brown.
Yet for the 8,000 residents of Franklin, and in cities and towns across America, the question of how public schools observe religious holidays is anything but frivolous.
Critics say Christmas tidings in the classroom alienate the growing number of American children, 15 percent by some estimates, who do not celebrate the holiday. Supporters say Santa is a secular symbol unjustly targeted by the pundits of political correctness.
''It seems like a minor issue, but it's symbolic of a great many frustrations people have with the schools,'' says Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum First-Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn. ''What people are really saying is: 'Whose schools are these?' and 'What kind of a nation do we want to be?'''
Since the United States Supreme Court outlawed school-sponsored prayer in 1962, schools have dealt with Christmas in a variety of ways. Many have jettisoned everything, including Santa, trees, and carols with Christian references like ''O Come All Ye Faithful.'' Some have kept them, but added Kwaanza and Hanukkah to the holiday menu. Still others have refused to change, risking lawsuits from civil liberties groups.
''Some parents want to bring in Christmas trees, and others don't want any mention of the word 'Christmas' at all,'' Mr. Haynes says. ''School officials get caught in the middle.''
The current imbroglio in Franklin began early this month when Pam Henderson, principal of Bessie Rowell Elementary, vetoed an appearance by Santa Claus at the school's traditional holiday concert.
The move sparked a series of shoulder-bumping school committee meetings in which the majority of attendees came to Santa's defense.
''I see Santa Claus not as a thing of religion but as a tradition,'' Franklin mayor Tom Matzke said, sporting a red-and-white Santa cap at the gathering. ''You cannot change a tradition.''
Although Ms. Henderson has refused to comment, Franklin school superintendent Edgar Melanson came to her defense: ''The point is not to do away with Santa Claus,'' he explains, ''it's about creating an even balance for the sake of diversity.''
Since at least 95 percent of Franklin's schoolchildren celebrate Christmas at home, Melanson says teachers have a responsibility to educate them about different cultures.
''What's happening here is that educators are realizing that this is no longer a white, Christian, Puritan New England; that we now have a significant population that does not share that heritage,'' says Clare Ebel, director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. Because the public schools are an arm of government, she says, ''they ought not to reflect any religious tradition.''
Nevertheless, James Pitt, Franklin's city manager, says Santa is too beloved a holiday fixture to be easily discarded.
''Some things are so ingrained in the culture of America, it would be difficult to legislate them out,'' he says. ''I think Santa Claus is one of them.''
Indeed, talk of multiculturalism hasn't dissuaded Santa's backers in this snow-kissed city 20 miles north of Concord. A call-in poll conducted by a local television station found that 93 percent of respondents want Santa reinstated.
''We are truly a Christian nation in every sense of the word,'' writes area resident William Cobourn in a letter to the Concord Monitor. ''Ignore Christmas if you will, but don't infringe upon our right to enjoy what means so much to us.''
The argument for Santa Claus is supported by legal precedents. Courts have found that while Nativity pageants are religious in nature and therefore are not allowable in public schools, symbols such as Santa Claus and Christmas trees are secular.
For that reason alone, Santa's advocates urge educators to mind the tradition.
''Santa Claus is about as generic of a figure as can be, that's why he's so popular,'' says Mike Russel of the Christian Coalition in Washington. ''He represents the holiday season for people of all faiths.''
Mr. Russel argues that removing Santa Claus ''at a time when the nation is openly celebrating spiritual faith is wrongheaded and heavy-handed.'' It is not, he says, ''what mainstream moms and dads want to see.''
Yet from coast to coast, hundreds of school boards are reexamining their holiday policies.
Last month, the school board in Baltimore County, Md., adopted a policy that would allow observation of the secular side of religious holidays, but not the use of religious symbols, music, or practices.
'WHILE it is appropriate to acknowledge the secular aspects of religious holidays [in public schools], it is not proper to celebrate the religious aspects,'' the policy says.
Yet Haynes argues that middle-of-the-road solutions like Baltimore County's are still flawed. In a brochure titled ''Finding Common Ground,'' Haynes and the Freedom Forum urge educators ''to take religion seriously'' by not just celebrating some of its traditions, but by teaching students about them.
Haynes advocates curriculum devoted to major holidays in all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.
Rabbi Arthur Starr, a member of the Manchester, N.H., Clergy Association, says the educational approach is the only proper one, and that educators in Franklin should look that way.
''I don't care if you teach about religion, as long as you don't teach religion,'' he says. ''That's why people came to this country in the first place: Freedom of, and freedom from, religion.''