All’s quiet on the courthouse grounds this year, after uproar over past holiday displays

December 23, 2013

Two years after a crucified skeleton dressed as Santa Claus drew unwelcome national attention to Loudoun County’s intensifying controversy over the fairness and legality of holiday displays on courthouse grounds, this holiday season appears to be passing peacefully.

There is only one county-sponsored holiday display on the public lawn this year, with no sign of Flying Spaghetti Monsters or Jedi knights. There have been no atheist banners, no protests in the county boardroom, no debates over the separation of church and state, and no posters urging supervisors to put an end to the so-called “war on Christmas.”

Although the furor seems to have died down, the calm won’t last, said Rick Wingrove, the Virginia director of American Atheists.

“We intend to go back to this issue,” he said of the displays.

Longtime Loudoun residents have become accustomed to the annual tradition of certain seasonal displays, such as a Nativity scene and a Christmas tree, on the grounds of the Leesburg courthouse. But many were less than thrilled when a more diverse array — including a mannequin Luke Skywalker, a poster from the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” and that skeletal Santa Claus on the cross — also appeared on the property in recent years.

After the crucified skeleton was torn down by an angry passerby in 2011, the community dispute escalated. Some claimed that displays such as the skeleton and Luke Skywalker amounted to a “war on Christmas” and should not be included. Others said the county should abide by the principle of separation of church and state, and prohibit religious displays entirely.

In the hope of settling the argument last year, Loudoun supervisors approved a county-funded arrangement totaling less than $4,000 — including a Nativity scene, menorah and decorated tree — and banned all unattended displays.

Private residents could still apply for an attended display, the policy said, and representatives with American Atheists promptly did just that. During Leesburg’s annual Christmas parade last year, several members of the group stood at the corner of the courthouse grounds and read excerpts from the writings of Charles Darwin to the passing crowds.

The atheists intended to do the same thing at this year’s parade Dec. 14, but they abandoned their plans. “The weather was miserable, and nobody wanted to be out in that,” Wingrove said. “Activism is no fun in the snow.”

But they aren’t throwing in the towel, Wingrove said. He pointed to judicial cases across the United States, including a case in California in which the court ordered that a cross be removed from public land as a violation of the First Amendment, and a case in Florida in which American Atheists prevailed in a lawsuit contesting the display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of a public courthouse.

“We’re going to go back to this issue, especially because there are a couple of other cases pending that may have some relevance here,” Wingrove said.

Ideally, he said, there would be no displays at all on public property. “That eliminates the possibility of any favoritism,” he said, adding that Nativity scenes and Christmas trees should be reserved for private properties such as churches.

“I suspect we will start in late spring or summer next year, and we will approach the Board of Supervisors and give them yet another opportunity to do the right thing,” Wingrove said.

Such an effort isn’t likely to get far, said Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large.)

“It has been a quiet year, because of the process the board instituted by ending permanent private displays by permit and having a government-sponsored display recognizing the Christmas holiday season,” York said in an e-mail. “I do not foresee this board changing its current policy.” If the board is unwilling to address the matter again, Wingrove said, the American Atheists would consider litigation.

“We’ve been trying for years to resolve this without suing. When you sue your own county, you’re paying for that lawsuit. We want to give them a chance to do the right thing,” he said.

Regardless of the outcome, Wingrove said, “next year will definitely not be as quiet as this one was.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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