The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss its policy regarding holiday displays on the courthouse grounds at its July 17 meeting.
I have been following this issue closely all year, and will use this opportunity to make some final observations before a possible vote by the board.
I refrained from writing about the county’s holiday display policy in this column last December, when there was an angry public debate about the displays on the courthouse lawn – in particular, a depiction of a crucified skeleton in a Santa costume. The controversy brought national attention to Loudoun County, and put the county in a bad light.
As I later wrote, the Christian season of Advent leading up to Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. I was saddened that a time when Christians observe a quiet period of hope, love, peace and joy had instead become a time of anger, confrontation, name-calling and complaints of persecution.
In March, the Loudoun County Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee (CGFC) began a series of meetings in which it formulated its recommendations regarding the holiday display policy.
From the start, the CGFC appeared to be following the direction of Board of Supervisors chairman Scott York, who had publicly said that he favored a display similar to the National Park Service display on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., which includes a crèche (Christian nativity scene), menorah and the National Christmas tree. That display is actually owned, erected and maintained by a nonprofit organization, not by the federal government.
On March 27, when the CGFC first delved into the issue, the discussion centered on the question of how to display a crèche in a way that would pass legal muster, not whether to display a crèche at all. The CGFC spent little or no time discussing the option of prohibiting all displays, as the same committee (with different membership) had recommended a few years ago.
Before long, a majority opinion emerged favoring a mix of religious and secular symbols as the best way to meet any legal challenge. Eventually, the committee voted to recommend displaying a crèche, menorah, Christmas tree, Santa with reindeer, and holiday greenery. After County Attorney Jack Roberts met with the committee in closed session, one committee member voted against including a crèche or menorah, in the interest of preventing a lawsuit.
Now that the Board of Supervisors has received the CGFC recommendation, the board has the opportunity to take another look at the question of whether the county government should own, maintain, and erect religious displays.
I am reminded of one CGFC meeting, in which committee members were discussing whether the Christian nativity scene should include angels, or whether the Jewish menorah should be decorated with a Star of David. These are questions for religious groups, not governmental bodies. But such questions are inevitable, at some level, if the government gets into the business of acquiring religious displays.
The governmental body that will set this policy is the Board of Supervisors of Loudoun County, not the Board of Supervisors of Christians and Jews. The supervisors represent people of many faiths and people who do not subscribe to any religious faith. The board members need to set aside their own religious preferences and consider what is right for the county as a whole. They should follow a prudent path that respects people of all religious faiths – and no religious faith.
One can argue about the costs the county taxpayers will have to bear in pursuing a policy that would allow religious displays, whether erecting religious displays is a “core government service” (which board members repeatedly used as a standard during the budget deliberations), or how the negative national attention Loudoun receives when it is sued will affect the county’s economic development efforts.
Those are all valid questions. But I think it all boils down to a more fundamental question about the proper role of government. In my opinion, the proper role of the Board of Supervisors does not include the promotion of Christianity and Judaism.
The Board of Supervisors should stick to governing and leave religion to the churches.