If towns can have souls, Pitman - descended from a 19th-century Methodist-Episcopal camp meeting - surely has one.

This unpretentious Gloucester County borough, population 9,365, boasts that it has 13 churches within its 2.3 square miles.

Pitman also is home to a controversy about religion in the public sphere: A "Keep Christ in Christmas" banner that previously hung across Broadway without incident this year has drawn complaints, mostly from afar.

A Pitman resident contacted the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation to complain about the prominent sign, which was paid for by the Catholic fraternal group the Knights of Columbus. The resident wishes to remain anonymous, according to the foundation.

The controversy has inspired Pitmanites in support of the banner to make similar signs and distribute bumper stickers. Residents have begun gathering to read the Bible aloud in Ballard Park, at Broadway and Pitman Avenue downtown.

"What's the matter with having a little God in your life?" says Helen Hayden, 83, who has lived in town since 1955. "Who do you pray to?"

We are chatting near the entrance to Pitman Grove, which has given the borough an unmistakable Christian character for nearly 140 years.

A charming village of tiny houses set close together in a wheel-and-spoke pattern, the Grove is the site of the old camp meeting.

An oasis of still-green grass that surrounds the handsome auditorium is where I encounter Catherine DeSimone walking a blind Chinese crested powderpuff named Freddie.

DeSimone is bewildered by critics who insist that the sign over a county-maintained road violates the legally mandated separation between church and state.

"The banner is flying in the open, in the air. Where is the state?" says DeSimone, who moved into Pitman seven years ago and ran a business there in the '70s.

The banner "isn't hurting anyone," adds the former South Philadelphian, who calls herself "a Catholic kid who belonged to a Presbyterian fellowship and the Jewish Y" when she was growing up.

On the afternoon I visit, I can't find a single person downtown who says the sign should be removed.

To me, the banner is a welcome reminder that Christmas is about more than an orgy of flat-screen-TV discounts.

But reasonable people can and do disagree about whether a sectarian statement ought to be displayed in a way that suggests official (i.e., government) support.

'True meaning'

It's true that sentiments benign to those who share them can feel exclusionary, even hostile, to those who don't. Public space belongs to everyone, not just to those who enjoy membership in the majority.

"Everyone should embrace" the banner, says Jeff Limer, 34, a lifelong borough resident. It shows "the true meaning of Christmas."

Pausing near the glorious marquee of the restored Broadway Theater, Maryann Young, 57, says she loves the message because "it's what Christmas is all about."

Adds Ron Zold, who owns Venice Italian Eatery on Broadway, "I was brought up to believe Dec. 25 is a celebration of Christ's birthday."

Zold and others I speak to aren't sure what all the fuss is about. He notes wryly that the news media were nowhere to be found when he and others made and served hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners to needy people.

Fifth generation

Now reporters from as far away as Newark comb Broadway's modest business strip looking for controversy, peering up at the giant "Everybody Likes Pitman" painted on the water tower.

"I'm fifth-generation in Pitman. My family came here in 1872 for the camp meetings," says borough councilwoman Debra Higbee, 61.

"We had a religious beginning, and to most people in Pitman that's still important."

Higbee, who is helping to collect memorabilia for a borough museum in the Grove, politely declines to comment on the matter.

She's tired of the uproar, as is lifelong resident Bill Mollenhauer, 68.

"Does this really matter, given the things going on today - people being unemployed and the wars we're fighting?" he asks. "Isn't it more important to solve those problems?"

Kevin Riordan:

A Christmas banner is the talk of Pitman:


Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com,

or @inqkriordan on Twitter.

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