With the December holidays around the corner, Loudoun County supervisors appear poised to approve a plan that aims to end a years-long controversy over having seasonal displays on the historic courthouse grounds in Leesburg.
The board’s Finance, Government Services and Operations Committee voted Monday to recommend that the Board of Supervisors approve a county-sponsored display that would feature secular and religious symbols, including a decorated evergreen tree, a Nativity display, a menorah, Santa Claus with a reindeer and sleigh, and seasonal greenery.
The cost for the display would be less than $4,000. The most expensive components would be the three-dimensional models of Santa Claus, a reindeer and a sleigh, which together would cost almost $2,500.
The committee chairman, Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), applauded county staff members for the “very frugal” cost of the decorations.
“It’s a very small amount of money,” he said. “This is something that puts a little bit of tastefulness back into our display on the courthouse grounds.”
During the past several holiday seasons, Loudoun received widespread attention as a result of a debate over holiday displays on the courthouse lawn. For decades, the decorations featured traditional elements, such as a creche and a Christmas tree. More recently, displays featuring atheist testimonials. A mannequin of Luke Skywalker and a tribute to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster were also added to the decorative mix.
Residents identifying themselves as Christians appealed to county supervisors to honor their freedoms of religion and speech, while atheist groups maintained that the inclusion of religious symbols on the courthouse grounds violated the separation of church and state.
At Monday’s committee meeting, Buona voiced his belief that a county-sponsored display would finally end the controversy.
“We are not going to have some of the things we’ve seen in the past, nor are we going to be subject, in my mind, to national ridicule,” he said. “I think this is a good solution for all involved.”
The issue has continued to escalate since it began in November 2009, when a resident-led committee decided that the county should ban unattended displays on the courthouse grounds. That sparked outrage among county residents after a Rotary Club’s application to place a Christmas tree on the property, a long-standing holiday tradition, was denied.
In response to the community outcry, supervisors established a policy allowing up to 10 groups to place displays on the courthouse grounds at one time, on a first-come, first-served basis. That policy was upheld by the board in September 2010, after the courthouse committee once again made a push to ban the displays.
After a crucified skeleton Santa was set up on the grounds last year — only to be dismantled hours later by a passerby who said the image was disrespectful and traumatic to children — the resulting media attention catapulted the local drama to a national stage.
In July, the board voted to direct county staff members to propose a county-sponsored display, with the goal to avoid continued unrest during the holidays. But area atheist groups immediately protested the decision and warned that the county could face legal action if it proceeded with that plan.
Rick Wingrove, Virginia state director of American Atheists, said Tuesday that his group was still evaluating how best to respond to the county’s actions.
“A government using public money, general funds, to buy religious artifacts, is a clear violation of the separation of church and state, and it should not happen,” Wingrove said.
Supervisor Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run), who told the board in July that he worried the decision to pursue a government-sponsored display would continue to make the county a “national spectacle,” repeated his concerns Monday before casting the lone opposing vote.
“I’m all for tastefulness, but I continue to believe . . . that we are in fact advancing certain religions, which is a violation of the establishment clause,” he said.
Wingrove agreed with that assessment, and reiterated that the county should not expect its decision to quiet the debate.
“It absolutely will not be the end of the controversy. This is a unilateral escalation of it,” he said. “For the government to be actively, openly promoting Christianity . . . it is unconstitutional. It is indefensible, and there will certainly be a response.”
The committee’s recommendation will come before the full Board of Supervisors for final approval at an upcoming business meeting.