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Loudoun supervisors approve religious display on courthouse grounds

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With a vote Tuesday to approve a seasonal display that includes religious elements on the courthouse grounds in Leesburg, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has set the stage for continued controversy and unrest in December.

On recommendations from the county finance committee and the courthouse grounds committee, the board voted, 6 to 2, to approve a winter display that will include religious elements, including a creche and a menorah, in addition to a decorated tree and Santa Claus and reindeer.

Supervisors Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run) and Vice Chairman Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) cast the opposing votes. Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) was absent.

The board had stated a desire to address the contentious issue well ahead of the holiday season, with the hope of quieting a debate that has raged over courthouse displays in recent years. By voting to include religious displays among the approved arrangement, the continued protest of some county residents — including atheist groups — is assured.

Rick Wingrove, Virginia state director of American Atheists, said his group was “naturally disappointed.”

“We’re disappointed that the Board of Supervisors thinks that the advancement of partisan religion is a proper role for government, and we’re disappointed in this entire process,” Wingrove said. “Separation of church and state is not an obstacle to overcome. It is a basic pillar of our constitutional freedom.”

The annual appearance of a Nativity scene, a decorated tree and other holiday imagery is a decades-long tradition in Leesburg, but one that has sparked intense disagreement in recent years, as tensions have escalated over the increasingly diverse displays, including some representing, in addition to atheism, Jediism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The issue came to the foreground in November 2009, when a resident-led committee determined that the county should ban unattended displays outside the courthouse because of increasing requests to use the space.

The decision prompted outrage among some residents after a Rotary Club group’s long-standing application to place a Christmas tree on the property was denied. Supervisors intervened and created a policy allowing as many as 10 groups to place displays on the courthouse grounds at one time, on a first-come, first-served basis.

The courthouse committee tried again in July 2010 to institute a ban on the displays, but the board ultimately voted in September 2010 to uphold the policy of allowing up to 10 unattended displays.

The drama reached new heights last year, when a crucified skeleton Santa was erected on the courthouse grounds. The display was intended to serve as an indictment of U.S. consumerism, its creator said, but it stood for just hours before being dismantled by an angry passerby who said the image might disturb children. The resulting debate and media attention put Loudoun’s small-town controversy in a national spotlight.

The board referred to the August 2010 opinion provided by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) to demonstrate that the approved arrangement is legally valid and in accordance with federal guidelines.

In his opinion, Cuccinelli wrote that “the county is free to communicate its own recognition of holidays, including Christmas, as long as overtly Christian symbols are balanced with other religious and secular ones in a way that communicates to reasonable, informed observers that the county is not making a religious statement.”

Wingrove said that the American Atheists were discussing possible legal action and that the board’s decision puts “the county at risk of a very expensive lawsuit. . . . We don’t know what the future is going to be on this, or how expensive it’s going to be for the taxpayers of Loudoun County.”

With his dissenting vote, Williams voiced concern that moving forward with the displays would again draw unwanted attention to Loudoun, rather than resolve the matter.

“In terms of [the county’s] reputation, this committee recommendation will continue to make Loudoun a national spectacle of a First Amendment debate on which the law has been well-
established,” Williams said.

Wingrove agreed with him.

“They have taken these steps to try to put an end to this debate once and for all,” Wingrove said. “This is a whole new start. . . . It did anything but put this issue to rest.”

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