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In Leesburg, holiday displays bring controversy and change

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Baby Jesus is keeping strange company.

For the better part of 50 years, a creche and a Christmas tree were the only holiday displays on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds.

Then came the mannequin Luke Skywalker and signs celebrating the winter solstice. This month, a skeleton Santa Claus was mounted on a cross, intended by its creator to portray society’s obsession with consumerism. A pine stands adorned with tinsel — and atheist testimonials. (“I can be moral without religion,” one declares.)

Members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are scheduled to put up their contribution this weekend. It’s a banner portraying a Nativity-style scene, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Virgin Mary cradles a stalk-eyed noodle-and-meatball creature, and the manger is surrounded by pirates, a solemn gnome and barnyard animals. The message proclaims: “Touched by an Angelhair.”

With the new displays, a new tradition was born: a charged seasonal debate.

This year, the dispute struck a particularly raw chord. The skeleton Santa was ripped down — twice — by offended locals. Kenneth D. Reid, Loudoun County supervisor-elect for the Leesburg District, sent a news release opposing “outrageous anti-religious displays.” In a letter to a local newspaper, one resident called the displays a “mean-spirited attack by the faithless on the faithful.”

Atheists spoke up, too. They said that if Jesus has a right to be there, so does the skeleton Santa. The place for a Nativity scene, they said, is outside a church, not a county courthouse.

Despite a flurry of tongue-in-cheek news reports about the controversy, most in Loudoun don’t find it a laughing matter. Some say the issue is about freedom of speech or the separation of church and state; others say it is about the importance of preserving a cherished small-town tradition.

‘It is embarrassing’

Stanley Caulkins, who moved to Leesburg in 1937, remembers the first time the Nativity scene was put up at the corner of the courthouse lawn.

Caulkins, who has owned Caulkins Jewelers in downtown Leesburg for more than a half-century, sees the creche as a valued symbol, something that should not be messed with. He went before the County Board of Supervisors two years ago to argue that it should stay. Last week, he said that he still does not understand why the issue engenders such controversy.

“The creche is not religious,” Caulkins said, his voice trembling. “It is a belief symbol. You have to believe in something.” His eyes were glazed with tears.

But he expressed little patience for those who profess a belief in flying pasta monsters or in the artistic value of a skeleton Santa Claus. “It is embarrassing to me, and it should be to everyone,” Caulkins said.

His point of view, shared by others, suggests that in matters of faith and tradition, facts carry less weight than feelings.

For decades, the creche took its place without fanfare. Then, in 2009, a courthouse grounds committee, concerned about a growing number of requests to use the public space, decided that Loudoun should ban all unattended displays on the property.

The public outcry was fierce and emotional. Wearing Santa hats and religious pins, residents poured into the county boardroom and pleaded with county leaders to respect the freedoms of speech and religion. The board ultimately decided to allow as many as 10 holiday displays on a first-come, first-served basis. Applicants got in line.

Baby Jesus generally appears in several displays. But others presented far different ideas about a holiday greeting.

Reid (R), a former Leesburg Town Council member, said he has been dismayed by some choices. “Just the way Christians have rallied against anti-Semitism and support Israel, I, as a Jew, will return the favor and help lead the fight to stop this mockery of Christmas and Christian beliefs,” he wrote in a statement.

Reid moved to Leesburg a decade ago because he wanted his children to grow up in a place with a quaint, small-town feel. He still thinks the town is welcoming and friendly, although he has seen some changes that concern him. Loudoun, which in recent years has been among the fastest-growing counties in the nation, is no longer the quiet farm community it once was.

Matthew Courtney — a “Pastafarian,” or member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — said that allowing diversity in the holiday displays is welcoming. He said he was excited to contribute a holiday message that represents his belief but acknowledged that the message might not be well received.

“I understand that it’s out of the blue for some of these residents — that there are atheists in the community, or Pastafarians in the community,” Courtney said. “A lot of them are uncomfortable with that. At some level, I can understand that. But it doesn’t bother me. . . . It does show the diversity of the community, and I think that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Rick Wingrove, Virginia state director of American Atheists and a longtime Loudoun resident, put up the atheist-themed tree and banner on the courthouse lawn to make a point: There should be tolerance for conflicting and secular viewpoints. But if he had his way, religious symbols would be barred from public property altogether.

At home, Wingrove said, his family celebrates a traditional holiday, complete with a decorated tree. “This has never been about destroying Christmas,” he said. “It’s always been about the separation of church and state.”

Seeking compromise

The question remains: Will the “War on Christmas” end this year?

Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) has indicated that the policy probably will be reconsidered after a new, all-Republican board takes office in January. Reid said he thinks that the supervisors will be able to find a compromise and salvage the town’s tradition.

Reid also said he thought that the local leaders could do more to help “bridge the divide” between the two sides of the debate and to ease the community’s growing pains.

“We still have that small-town feel,” he said, “but we’re no longer a small town.”

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