Loudoun County maintains policy on unattended displays on public grounds

By Caitlin Gibson
Thursday, September 9, 2010

The "War on Christmas" has ended: The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to uphold a policy that allows unattended displays, including religious ones, to be placed on the public grounds of the county courthouse in downtown Leesburg.

In an 8 to 1 vote, with Supervisor Stevens Miller (D-Dulles) opposed, the board put an end to a heated debate that began in November, when a resident-led commission decided that the county should ban unattended displays outside the courthouse. That decision, prompted by a rising number of requests to use the space, drew the ire of residents when the commission denied a rotary group's application to place a Christmas tree on court grounds.

The board addressed the matter last year by creating a policy allowing as many as 10 groups to place displays on the courthouse grounds at any time, on a first-come, first-served basis. But the resident-led commission continued to express concern that the new policy created a cluttered and unmanageable situation, and it appealed to the board in July to consider reinstating the ban before the upcoming holiday season.

Residents speaking in favor of allowing religious displays on the grounds have dominated previous public hearings. They did so again at a public input session Tuesday at which the board was urged to maintain the current policy by Leesburg Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), local clergy members and scores of residents wearing blue pins that read "Merry Christmas -- God with us."

The appeals of those who addressed the board ranged from impassioned pleas to respect the Constitution to angry claims of religious persecution.

"Christianity is under attack," Leesburg resident Barbara Bayles-Roberts said. As for those who don't believe in God, she added, "there is a holiday for them, and it's called April Fools' Day."

The issue prompted an unlikely alliance between conservative Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling), who has led the charge to keep the religious displays, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which submitted a letter to the Board of Supervisors in July urging it to preserve "the spirit of free expression that is so much a part of our nation's heritage and continuing vitality."

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) also weighed in on the matter in an opinion dated Aug. 20, saying that local governments should not be compelled to ban holiday displays that include religious symbols. The opinion was a response to a request from Marshall, who asked whether Loudoun is required to prohibit holiday displays on public property.

Miller, who cast the lone opposing vote, expressed concern that the right to due process was being overshadowed by the right to religious freedom, adding that jurors or defendants might be intimidated by displays outside the building. People do not come to the courthouse to see religious displays, Miller said: "They come to the courthouse to see justice done."

But the remaining supervisors were ultimately united in their desire to maintain the current policy in the hope that the use of the property will reflect a spirit of inclusion and tolerance.

"People who preach the First Amendment need to abide by the First Amendment," said Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), who added that he would be willing to revisit the matter next year if an incident such as the one that occurred last year -- when an unpopular display was stolen -- is repeated this holiday season.

Supervisor Andrea McGimsey (D-Potomac) said she thinks the courthouse grounds should be "a vibrant place" where the community can express itself.

"I hope we can put this issue to rest, finally," she said.

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