Holiday Display Headed for a Lawsuit?
Board of Supervisors will probably face litigation if it approves religious displays at courthouse.
The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors appears to be headed toward a lawsuit over the contents of a Christmas display on the courthouse grounds. But why?
Why do some of the board members seem determined to pick this fight when it is not likely that they will win? At the very least, a legal battle will bring Loudoun more unwanted attention and cost thousands of taxpayer dollars.
As it stands now, the Board’s Finance, Government Services and Operations Committee has recommended a county-owned holiday display that will include a crèche (Christian nativity scene), menorah, Christmas tree, Santa Claus with reindeer and holiday greenery. This is also the recommendation of the Loudoun County Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee (CGFC).
The board is expected to vote on this issue at its July 17 meeting.
There does not appear to be any problem with the secular components of the display—the Christmas tree, Santa or greenery. The problem is with the religious symbols—the crèche and menorah.
On April 24, Rick Wingrove, a member of American Atheists, told the CGFC that a secular holiday tree would be acceptable to him and his group, but that they would actively oppose overtly religious displays on the courthouse grounds. Citing several court decisions, he said that the county “will be sued and they will lose” if it puts up a nativity scene. He predicted that the ensuing legal proceedings would cost the county $2 million.
I believe Wingrove when he says the county will be sued, and I agree that the county would probably lose that suit. As I have written previously, it is not the proper role of government to endorse Christianity, Judaism or any other religion. The government simply should not be in the business of acquiring and erecting religious symbols like a crèche or menorah.
I attended all of the CGFC’s meetings in which this issue was discussed, and I understand how the committee arrived at this recommendation.
Many of the committee members were new to the committee this year, and all were appointed by the current Board of Supervisors.
The committee did not start with a blank slate, but with marching orders from the Board of Supervisors to come up with a plan for a courthouse display modeled after the holiday display on the Ellipse in Washington, DC, which includes a nativity scene, menorah and the National Christmas Tree.
They were also armed with an opinion by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli saying that a display with a mix of religious and secular symbols would be acceptable.
But there are a couple of problems with this approach.
First, the federal government does not store, maintain or erect the national display on the Ellipse. In response to a 1968 lawsuit, the National Park Service turned those responsibilities over to a nonprofit organization, the Pageant of Peace Inc. Under the plan the Board of Supervisors is currently considering, the county would acquire, erect and maintain the entire holiday display, including the nativity scene and menorah.
Also, an opinion from Cuccinelli must be taken in context. As Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney recently pointed out, Cuccinelli’s track record in several high profile lawsuits has been woeful.
Cuccinelli filed fruitless lawsuits challenging the Affordable Healthcare Act, the Environmental Protection Agency and a University of Virginia climate change researcher. His quixotic crusades have made him the darling of right-wing Republicans and made him the frontrunner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination—at the expense of state resources and tax dollars.
If Cuccinelli’s opinion regarding the courthouse display leads Loudoun County into costly litigation, Loudoun taxpayers, not Cuccinelli, will pay the price.
It will be interesting to see if the Board of Supervisors pays as much attention to the opinion of County Attorney Jack Roberts, whose responsibility is to provide legal advice to the board.
After Roberts met in closed session with the CGFC, the committee stuck to its guns on its plan, although one member, Roy Liggett, voted against displaying the nativity scene and menorah, in the interest of avoiding a lawsuit.
When CGFC chair Clint Good presented his committee’s recommendation to the finance committee, Broad Run District Supervisor Shawn Williams asked if the recommendation was consistent with the advice of the county attorney. Good twice refused to answer the question. If the answer had been “yes,” I have no doubt that he would have said so. In effect, his silence answered the question.
Williams, an attorney—and a Christian—clearly gets it. He has stated that this is a battle he does not want to fight. We will soon find out if the other supervisors line up with him, or if they stubbornly dig in their heels and continue on a path toward costly, embarrassing litigation.