Shoppers perusing the curiosity and gift shops in downtown Pitman might miss the sign hanging overhead that reads, "Keep Christ in Christmas."

But the white plastic banner has caught the attention of a national group advocating the separation of church and state, which maintains that by allowing the sign on public property, the borough is promoting Christmas and Christianity and thus violating the Constitution.

The use of the term Christmas can be controversial when it comes to public life. Last winter, the establishment and subsequent name change of a "Christmas Village" outside Philadelphia's City Hall riled observers of various religious persuasions.

Andrew Seidel, a consultant with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, said he decided to take up the issue after a Pitman resident, who asked to remain anonymous, contacted him, complaining he had to pass by the sign on his way to work each day.

"'Keep Christ in Christmas' is so blatantly an endorsement of a single religious view," he said. "You can't be free to believe what you believe if the government is picking a corner, taking a side. It makes all non-adherents feel like political outsiders, and it's not OK for government to make people feel they don't belong."

Sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization, the sign has been hanging over Pitman's main street each holiday season for years, with the intention of reminding residents of the religious significance of Christmas.

Dennis Merlino, an official with the Knights of Columbus in nearby Mantua, said the slogan was not designed to exclude other religious groups from holiday celebrations. He said he thought the controversy had been overblown.

"If you took a poll, I doubt you'd find many people against it," he said. "I don't know why it is that people think that because you put up a sign, you're against everything else."

Pitman Mayor Michael Batten, who owns a barbershop downtown, echoed the sentiment.

"I think it's a sign of the sad state of affairs of life in this country," he said of objections to the banner.

For now, borough attorney Brian Duffield is investigating which government entity might have jurisdiction over the sign. He said the lines hanging the sign were attached to private properties.

"I doubt they have a permit," Duffield said. "We'll have to look into it."

Conflicts like this are what Seidel spends his days on the lookout for - from the National Day of Prayer to religious-themed speeches by elected politicians. Every Christmas his group hangs a sign in Madison, Wis., alongside the other holiday-themed decorations, that reads: "At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Freedom from Religion has offered to drop its protest in Pitman if the borough allows it to hang its sign alongside the Knights of Columbus'. But any compromise will have to wait until the next Borough Council meeting, which is scheduled for two days after Christmas.

"It might be a moot point this year, but there's next year to consider," Batten said at a council meeting Monday night.

For some residents in Pitman, the K. of C. sign over Broadway has become a part of the Christmas panorama.

Janet Zuchowicz, who helps out at some downtown shops during the holidays, said she barely noticed the sign anymore but agreed with the sentiment.

"In here," she said from behind the counter of a gift store, "people are pretty pleasant."