I was not offended by the displays that I saw on the courthouse lawn in downtown Leesburg last month. I was not offended by the skeleton Santa
display or by the messages I read on displays created by atheists.
In fact, I agree with many of the sentiments expressed in the displays that conveyed wishes of peace, good will and tolerance, or that made statements against the over-commercialization of Christmas.
Nevertheless, I believe that the decision by the last Board of Supervisors to allow the courthouse displays was one of the worst decisions the supervisors made during their four-year term. If not the very worst, I would place it in the Top Two.
I was saddened by the expressions of anger, intolerance and hatred that the board’s decision engendered. These were sour, discordant notes that created a needless distraction during one of my favorite times of year, the season of Advent.
For me and many other Christians, Advent is a solemn period of waiting – of hope and anticipation, leading up to the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. In my church, we light a candle every week during Advent, accompanied by readings and songs in which we contemplate the meaning of hope, love, peace and joy.
It is not a time for anger, confrontation, name-calling, or complaints of persecution, either real or imagined.
Some have said that the displays made Leesburg a laughingstock. Indeed, we made national news, and not in a good way. But I was bothered more by the bad feelings here in Leesburg that directly resulted from the board’s decision to allow the displays.
No one on the board should have been surprised by what transpired on the courthouse lawn the last two years. The outcome was entirely predictable, and the board members were in fact warned at the time they were debating this decision that something like this would occur.
But they were apparently swayed by emotional pleas from some Christians, who were affronted by the possibility that a Nativity scene would no longer be allowed on the courthouse grounds.
Some may believe there is a war on Christmas in this country, but I don’t.
About two blocks from the courthouse, Leesburg United Methodist Church erects a Nativity scene on its grounds every year. I have never known anyone to complain about it.
Leesburg Presbyterian Church, where I am a member and serve as an elder, is located three blocks from the courthouse. Our church has put on a Living Nativity every year for decades, complete with live animals. Costumed church members of all ages assume the roles of Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds and wise men. There are readings from the New Testament, and we sing Christmas carols.
It is a wonderful family event. My wife was the coordinator of the Living Nativity this year, and I was privileged to participate, along with two of my children, as we have for many years. For one hour of 2011, at least, I got to be a wise man.
We hold the Living Nativity on the lawn of our church, on Market Street, where any passersby can see it. Over all the years, I have never heard anyone complain about our public display of religious faith. The common reactions we see are respect and reverence.
Hope, love, peace and joy – this is what Advent means to me, and this is the reason I chose not to get caught up in the cacophony of anger and intolerance that resounded in December from the board’s decision regarding courthouse displays.
Board Chairman Scott York has promised that the board will soon review its policy regarding displays on the courthouse grounds again. In the past, the question has centered on two choices – whether to allow displays expressing all views, or whether to allow no displays at all.
York showed interest in a third option, in which the county government itself would erect some sort of holiday display.
If the board goes this route, it should consider simply putting up a Christmas tree. But I believe the board will receive pressure to allow or erect more overtly religious displays, such as the traditional Nativity scene. That would be a mistake.
The government simply should not get into the religion business, either by erecting religious displays itself, or by deciding which expressions of religious faith (or lack thereof) will receive the county’s stamp of approval, and which will not. If the county government heads down that road, it is a path that will take us right back to where we have been the last two years. It could get both ugly and costly, with litigation a likely outcome.
Soon we will see if the new board members have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors.