NEWARK, N.J. Colored lights, Christmas trees and menorahs are brightening town squares around New Jersey, but the legal landscape for such displays remains murky.
Some schools are also wrestling with how to incorporate elements of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in their classrooms, assemblies and hallways.
The best advice from experts: honor the year-end traditions of different religions without endorsing a particular ideology.
The season often spawns lawsuits around the nation regarding religious symbols on government property and in public schools. Displaying a crèche or singing Christmas carols have been the subject of court fights over whether they violate the constitutional prohibition against mixing government and religion.
The courts have provided plenty of directions, making for a confusing road map, says William G. Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
As a result, the guidance the league offers is among the most popular items on its Web site, trolled by officials from many of the state's 566 towns, Dressel said.
Several appellate rulings covering New Jersey "all take pains to distinguish their holdings and insist that none of them contradict each other. Nevertheless, it is hard to formulate any set of rules to ensure that a given display is constitutionally permissible if it has any religious symbols in it," he wrote to members.
His guidance notes, "Municipal holiday displays that are limited to more secular images, like Santa Claus and Christmas trees, are likely to survive constitutional scrutiny, However, it is still unclear under what circumstances more religious symbols, like crèches, menorahs, or in related cases, copies of the Ten Commandments, may be displayed by a municipality or on municipal property."
The league's lawyer, Deborah M. Kole, says there is no "magic bullet" that will automatically prevent lawsuits.
"The basic thing with the issue is that the state cannot appear to be promoting one religion over another. But within that general principle, there's a lot of wiggle room," Kole said.
Much of the league's suggestions stem from a case in which Jersey City's holiday display prevailed over a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union after a five-year seesaw tour through several federal courts in the late 1990s.
Jersey City, the state's second-largest city, argued that the constitutional separation of church and state did not require that government discriminate against religion.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that by including plastic figures of Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman, the city had provided sufficient secular cover for the Christmas Nativity scene and Hanukkah menorah.
In 2000, Wall defeated another ACLU lawsuit, which claimed the Monmouth County township's display was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government.
Like Jersey City, Wall used public money for a display in front of its city hall. Both towns use that space for a variety of displays throughout the year, in honor of religious and secular holidays.
"You have to embrace all aspects of your community," Wall administrator Joseph L. Verruni said.
Its winter holiday display this year will include a tree, menorah, poinsettias, Santa, Frosty "and all the other things that are associated with the various religions throughout Wall Township," he said.
New Jersey has a growing Muslim population, centered around Paterson. A national Muslim group said it had not received any complaints about displays this season and supports them as long as all faiths can be represented when their holidays arise.
"In schools, if it's student-initiated and students of all faiths have access to a bulletin board or display case, we have no problem with it," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.
Although lawsuits over holiday displays often involve a complaint that religion is being promoted, a pending lawsuit involving a school district asserted that religion is being excluded.
The 3rd Circuit in October reinstated a lawsuit filed by a parent who charged that the South Orange-Maplewood School District was violating the constitutional rights of his children by barring religious music.
"The schools that claim they are excising religion from schools to promote tolerance are doing just the opposite," said Robert J. Muise, a lawyer handling the family's case from the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., which the center says was founded to defend Christianity in the courts.
The suit was filed in 2004 by Michael Stratechuk of Maplewood on behalf of his children, Kurt and Karl, who said the district banned religious music in the 2004-05 school year.
The lawsuit was dismissed in September 2005 by a federal judge in Newark. It was revived when a 3rd Circuit panel found the judge erred by considering the district's official policy, which Stratechuk contended did not reflect actual practice.
The official policy at the time, which was adopted in 2001, stated that, "religious music, like any other music, can only be used if it achieves specific goals of the music curriculum."
That portion of the policy was dropped when a revised policy was adopted in October 2005, shortly after the lawsuit was dismissed: "Music programs prepared or presented by student groups as an outcome of the curriculum shall not have a religious orientation or focus on religious holidays."
District officials did not return messages seeking comment.
Like the League of Municipalities, the New Jersey School Boards Association, which represents over 600 districts, cannot provide ironclad rules.
"Schools can't promote religion or inhibit religion, but it's not so cut and dried as saying 'no religion in school,' or 'no Christmas in school,'" said association spokesman Michael Yaple.
He said most schools, as part of their educational program, have Christmas carols as well as music for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
"I think what you're seeing now is more of a change in philosophies, for allowing more inclusion," Yaple said.