As Memorial Day weekend approaches, Loudoun County officials are already thinking ahead to the winter holidays — specifically, the matter of holiday displays outside the historic courthouse in Leesburg.
Over the past several weeks, the county Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee has been composing a proposed policy aimed at settling a heated seasonal debate over what displays should or should not be permitted on the public grounds.
The appearance of a nativity scene and other seasonal arrangements is a decades-long tradition in Leesburg, one that has been eclipsed in recent years by escalating tensions over the increasingly diverse display of holiday arrangements on the courthouse lawn.
The Courthouse Grounds committee is scheduled to come before the Board of Supervisors’ Finance and Government Services and Operations Committee with its recommendations in June. The board has previously declared its intent to approve a new policy before the August recess, well ahead of the winter holidays.
Courthouse Grounds committee Chairman Clint Good said the committee members have been “very unanimous” in their decisions.
So far, the recommended seasonal arrangement would include a decorated tree, a Santa and reindeer, a creche and a menorah, according to Good.
“I think the goals and aspirations are that we have Christmas represented on the courthouse grounds — Christmas, and a secular representation of the holiday,” he said.
The drama over the past few years has caused “a lot of consternation in the community,” Good added. “We need to find something that works.”
But Rick Wingrove, the Capitol Hill representative for the group American Atheists, said that the proposal will only succeed if there is equal representation. In past years, local atheists have set up seasonal banners celebrating the winter solstice alongside religious displays on the grounds.
Wingrove said the group remains opposed to the presence of Christian religious symbols on the courthouse grounds, but if an atheist banner could at least be included in the display, “that would have an effect on our feelings about the outcome,” he said.
Otherwise, he added, “this issue certainly isn’t going to go away just because they kick us out.”
Good said the possibility of adding such a seasonal banner would be discussed at a committee meeting Tuesday night. That meeting was scheduled to occur after The Washington Post’s Local Living deadline.
The annual conflict reached new heights last year when a crucified skeleton Santa Claus was erected on the courthouse grounds, intended by its creator to serve as an indictment of American consumerism. The display didn’t last long before it was dismantled by a distraught passerby, who feared that the image might traumatize local children.
The ensuing flurry of media coverage only intensified the community’s debate over the collision of small-town tradition and free speech.
Good said he understood the motives of the woman who took down the skeleton Santa.
“She was on track with her feelings that there was animosity towards her and others in the community with that kind of symbolism being placed on the lawn,” he said. “It was hurtful. And we’re not for hurting people, we’re for building consensus and coming up with a plan that works for everybody.”
Wingrove agreed that the skeleton Santa proved to be a boiling point for the issue but denounced the idea that atheists and other groups should be excluded from the grounds because of the controversy.
“Of course this is all in response to the skeleton Santa from last year,” he said. “They’re using that as an excuse to shut down all the atheist displays because it was such a horrible abuse of free speech. Here’s the thing: It wasn’t put up by an atheist. It was put up by a Christian.”
Although it seems certain that skeleton Santa will not be permitted to make a reappearance on the grounds, the committee has said that the display will remain within recommended legal guidelines and will be inclusive of other views and religions beyond Christianity.
“We have followed the outline letter from the attorney general, we have followed the federal Christmas holiday displays that are in front of the White House,” Good said. “I think we’re pretty much falling in line with what we were instructed to do and what we are allowed to do.”
The coming weeks will determine whether the issue has been resolved once and for all. Wingrove said that without including an atheist display, “the county is opening itself up to litigation.”
“What they’re trying to do is put this to rest once and for all, to find a solution that suits everybody,” he said. “If they do this, and exclude other points of view, then that won’t work.”