Loudoun reverses ban on public displays at courthouse

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bowing to an outpouring of protests from residents, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors reversed a week-old rule Tuesday that had banned public displays, including Nativity scenes and Christmas trees, at the county courthouse.

Supervisors voted 7 to 1 to allow community groups "equal access" to the courthouse grounds. The supervisor who voted to keep the ban, James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), said he feared that extremist groups would turn the century-old courthouse in downtown Leesburg into a "public circus."

Dozens of residents carrying signs and wearing Christmas red showed up at a county meeting Monday night to protest the rule, saying that it would ruin the county's holiday parade, set for Dec. 12. A decorated Christmas tree and a Nativity scene have been seasonal fixtures on the courthouse lawn for decades.

More than 1,000 people signed a petition against the policy, and several members of the Leesburg Town Council, including the mayor, voiced opposition to it.

A resident-led county committee that handles issues related to Loudoun grounds and facilities voted unanimously last week to bar any structures, religious or otherwise, from the lawn of the courthouse, citing the increasing number of requests by residents to use it as a public meeting space.

Members of the committee, who are appointed by supervisors, said they had studied the issue for more than a year, consulting with Loudoun County Attorney John R. "Jack" Roberts and evaluating two dozen court decisions.

Ben Lawrence, 79, chairman of the grounds and facilities committee and a Leesburg resident, said he was baffled by the reversal. He said the ban was not instituted solely to push out religious displays but to protect the 19th-century redbrick courthouse from damage.

"We really don't understand," Lawrence said Tuesday after the board voted. "We'll have to see what happens, but we think this means anything goes, and, if that's the case, my goodness gracious."

Supervisors said they had been told that the ban could have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.

"We are looking at an issue that came down to the core of some people's beliefs and traditions," said Supervisor Kelly Burk (D-Leesburg), who proposed the reversal. "We want to make sure that all the requests are treated fairly under the law."

Phil Rusciolelli, 63, a member of the Leesburg Rotary Club whose original request to put up the tree and Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn this year was denied, said he was "very happy the board responded so quickly." Rotary Club members plan to install the displays this weekend, he said.

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