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Mangers and 'Star Wars' mingle in displays on Loudoun courthouse grounds

By Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 12:10 AM

For half a century, a decorated Christmas tree and a Nativity scene have stood on the grounds of Loudoun's courthouse every holiday season, a defining element of the county's holiday celebration. In recent years, the traditional Christian symbols have been joined by displays of symbols from the Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths.

Now, after a long and heated debate that began last year over the legality and management of religious displays on the courthouse's public grounds, 10 holiday displays are on view this month: a Christmas tree, three manger scenes, five atheist displays and a mannequin arrangement featuring "the chosen one," Luke Skywalker of "Star Wars."

Days before the annual Leesburg holiday parade Dec. 4, the first two displays appeared on the grounds, with messages for passerby. Along North King Street, across from the Lightfoot restaurant, was a letter written by Middleburg resident Jenelle Embrey on behalf of Jesus:

"Dear Christians," it began, printed in plain black type on white cardboard. "It has come to my attention that many of you are upset that folks are taking MY name out of the season."

The letter, which goes on to appeal for kindness and tolerance during the holidays, was written by Embrey - a member of the Northern Virginia Atheists - to try to soothe some of the anger that came to the surface during the county's debate over religious displays in the public space.

"I wanted to try to promote peace and civility," Embrey said. "Because it seems that the Christian group was the most defensive during the debate, I specifically addressed them in my letter, using some of the positive things out of their religion to try to appeal to them."

The issue began in November 2009, when the resident-led Courthouse Grounds and Facility Committee decided that the county should ban unattended displays outside the courthouse. The decision drew the wrath of residents when the committee denied a Rotary Club's application to erect a Christmas tree.

The Board of Supervisors intervened, creating a policy that allows up to 10 groups to place displays on the grounds at any time, on a first-come, first-served basis.

That didn't end the controversy. The committee appealed to the board again in July, asking for the reinstatement of the ban before the holiday season. Then the American Civil Liberties Union weighed in, submitting a letter to the board 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) issued an opinion in August, saying religious displays were legally permissible on public courthouse property. In addition, scores of politicians, clergy members and residents had filled the board room at public hearings, the vast majority in favor of allowing the traditional displays that had decorated the grounds for decades and become a cherished part of local celebrations.

Their wish was granted in September, when the supervisors voted, 8-1, to uphold a policy allowing the unattended displays.

Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), who had voted to maintain the ban last year, reversed his decision and voted to allow the displays, pointedly reminding residents that they would have to respect the viewpoints of all the displays.

"People who preach the First Amendment need to abide by the First Amendment," he said.

That view was echoed by Ken Levesque, a Loudoun resident who set up an atheist display on the grounds facing East Market Street.

"Unattended signs and symbols of a religious nature, including my sign, have no place in the public square," Levesque said. "Unfortunately, the board, under pressure from Christian groups, voted to allow the creche and other religious symbols. . . . My sign is merely an attempt to make proponents of public-square religious displays recognize that their stance opens the door to others expressing opposing religious views in the public square. It is a reminder that freedom of speech and freedom of religion protect all views, not just the majority view."

Charles G. Houston, a member of the Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee, said the atheists' displays go too far by mocking the religious beliefs of others.

Last year, he said, an atheist display was stolen soon after it was erected, and he expects that the many members of the public will react with dismay when another atheist display is scheduled to go up on the courthouse grounds Thursday, in the corner spot usually inhabited by the traditional creche.

His hope, he said, is that a more carefully crafted policy might be able to find the right balance between honoring the First Amendment and maintaining a respectful atmosphere on the grounds.

"There needs to be some fine-tuning," he said. "And I'm certain there will be, after events unfold this season."

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