To be or not to be decking the halls?

The Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg. A committee's decision last month to ban public holiday displays on its grounds was reversed by supervisors.
The Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg. A committee's decision last month to ban public holiday displays on its grounds was reversed by supervisors. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By James Hohmann
Thursday, December 10, 2009

The county still has no approved Nativity scene or Christmas tree, more than a week after Loudoun's Board of Supervisors reversed a committee's decision to ban public displays.

The supervisors will probably change that at a special meeting Thursday by ironing out details about who can set up displays, just in time for Saturday's annual holiday parade in Leesburg. The meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. at the school administration building in Ashburn, an hour before a scheduled public input session on the budget.

On Dec. 1, supervisors voted, 7 to 1, to allow community groups "equal access" to the grounds.

A decision last month to bar any structures, religious or otherwise, from the lawn of the Loudoun County Courthouse was made unanimously by a resident-led county committee that handles issues related to Loudoun grounds and facilities. Members have pointed to the increasing number of requests by residents to use the courthouse grounds as a public meeting space. The committee also cited fears about damage to the 19th-century red-brick building.

Last week's vote by the supervisors instructed the committee to issue new rules, but the committee won't meet again until Dec. 22. More action is needed, therefore, so displays can be placed on the grounds before then. The supervisors who called for the meeting plan to offer detailed instructions to staff members so they can process applications.

"The county owns the property," said Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling). "The grounds are meant for the public."

The supervisor who voted to keep the ban, James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), plans to reiterate his opposition to reversing the committee's decision. He said he has been reading court decisions since Dec. 1 and is afraid the county is inviting protracted litigation.

"I'm not a lawyer, but it's clear to me that there's no clear guidance out of the Supreme Court or the lower courts on this issue," Burton said. "There are 5 to 4 votes in all directions, going back to 1947. That tells me that, as a county, we should stay out of this First Amendment arena. . . . Whether you win or lose, it appears to be a roll of the dice."

About 1,200 people signed a petition against the policy that ended the displays, and several members of the Leesburg Town Council, including the mayor, had voiced opposition to it. Town Council member Ken Reid worked to galvanize the mass public opposition, and he has been working to drum up interest in Thursday's meeting to increase attendance.

"I just don't understand why they didn't tell their staffers in that resolution to go ahead" with permitting displays, he said. "It just delays things for a little bit. I hope we don't see a return of Scrooge."

In an unexpected twist, the Rotary Club of Leesburg withdrew its application to put a Christmas tree on the courthouse lawn after the group's board of directors met Thursday. The club has been putting up a tree for about 50 years.

"As an organization, we do not get involved in public policymaking or political issues," said Ron Rogos, club president, reading from a statement. "We are a service club only."

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