A skeleton in a Santa suit, draped over a cross, reignited the controversy over seasonal displays on the grounds of the Loudoun County courthouse in Leesburg on Dec. 5, 2011. Handout photo taken by a constituent of Leesburg Councilman Ken Reid, and who authorized Reid to release it. (Courtesy Ken Reid)

People stopped to stare and voiced their disapproval about the strange red-coated skeleton that appeared on the courthouse grounds in Leesburg over the weekend. But one woman’s disdain prompted her to take the step of dismantling the Santa on Monday afternoon, just one day after it was first set up as part of Loudoun County’s longtime seasonal tradition of showcasing holiday displays on the public property, according to county officials.

The crucified Santa had drawn the immediate attention of community residents, resulting in a barrage of complaints to county officials, according to Julie Withrow, assistant to the county administrator.

Several residents also spoke out against the display at a public hearing before the county Board of Supervisors Monday night, hours after the unidentified woman removed the Santa from the cross and laid it on the ground, officials said.

Supervisor-elect Kenneth “Ken” Reid (R-Leesburg) also sent an e-mail to local media representatives, stating that he was “utterly outraged” to see the skeleton Santa.

“How offensive to children, especially, to see a beloved symbol of the holidays crucified!” he said in the e-mail.

According to the application for the display, filed by Jeff Heflin, Jr. of Middleburg, the skeleton Santa was intended “to depict society’s materialistic obsessions and addictions and how it is killing the peace, love, joy and kindness that is supposed to be prevalent during the holiday season.”

Attempts to reach Heflin were not immediately successful.

The issue of holiday displays — which have grown increasingly eclectic in recent years, representing Atheism, Jediism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster alongside traditional displays — first sparked a heated debate in November 2009, when a resident-led committee decided the county should ban unattended displays outside the courthouse because of a rising number of requests to use the space.

That decision drew the anger of local residents after a rotary group’s application to place a Christmas tree on court grounds was denied. The county Board of Supervisors addressed the matter 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.

The issue resurfaced in July 2010 when the committee once again appealed to the Board of Supervisors to institute a ban on the displays, but the Board ultimately voted in September 2010 to uphold the previous policy of permitting up to 10 unattended displays on the property.

Before the vote last September, Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge) cautioned residents that they would have to respect each other’s First Amendment rights if the policy were to continue. He also said the issue should be revisited if an incident like the one that occurred during the 2009 holiday season, when an unpopular display was stolen, was repeated.

At the public hearing Monday, American Atheists representative Rick Wingrove once again appealed to the Board to prohibit displays on the courthouse grounds, using the Santa controversy to demonstrate his point.

“Some people just don’t like free speech except their own free speech,” he said. “A woman came on the courthouse grounds and vandalized the first display that was put up… the display is provocative, but in the United States of America, under our Constitution, provocative is protected.”

On Tuesday morning, there was no sign of the dismantled Santa or a “Letter from Jesus” display that was also set up by the same Middleburg resident. Withrow said she wasn’t certain whether the owner of the displays had removed them, or whether they might be set up again.