Holiday Display Headed for a Lawsuit?

Board of Supervisors will probably face litigation if it approves religious displays at courthouse.

The Loudoun County 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 that will include a crèche (Christian nativity scene), menorah, Christmas tree, Santa Claus with reindeer and holiday greenery. This is also the (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, 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. . 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, , 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.

MG Henry July 05, 2012 at 02:09 PM
If the atheists win, will that mean that we will have tochange the name of the Holy Day [holiday]? Because the Name of CHRIST is inherent in Christmas, Christmas Tree and Christmas day. How come they get to win in the face of the obvious fact that CHRISTMAS is Christ's birth celebration?
Kristen H July 05, 2012 at 02:20 PM
MG, no one wants to change how you personally celebrate Christmas. I just think that nativity scenes should be left to individuals or churches, and that government buildings should not display any religious symbols.
Stephanie R July 05, 2012 at 03:47 PM
MG - what Kristen H says. But please consider the logic behind your statement. Just because you celebrate Christ's birthday on the day refered to as "Christmas" does not mean everyone does. Just like most of us don't send thanks to Thor on Thursday.
Myth Buster July 05, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Enough already. No Skelton Santa, No Creche and No Menorah. Just put a "secular" holiday tree up. This is on Government property and as such any public holiday display should be religiously agnostic.
Bud S. July 05, 2012 at 04:56 PM
Who is Rick Wingrove and why does a nativity scene make him feel so threatened that he and his FEW buddies would sue over it? Get a life Rick and leave the MAJORITY of us alone. Bud S.
Erin July 05, 2012 at 09:19 PM
MG, I think it's best if you stop trying to be divisive. Personally, I don't consider agnostics, jews, atheists or christians to be "they" like you do. Maybe because I am non religious it is perhaps easier for me to see everybody above as "us". Stating that christmas is the "obvious" celebration of the birthday of Jesus is factually incorrect since it was a druid holiday prior to being adopted by christian religion. Nativity scenes are great, as long as they are not on government owned property that belong to us as taxpayers.
Erin July 05, 2012 at 09:26 PM
Bud, It's quite a bit more than a "FEW" who feel threatened by religious based governments. Even if (big if) a majority wish to ignore and violate the US Constitution it is still the law of our land. If you feel strongly enough about this you should champion an amendment to the Constitution to declare that the USA is now religious regime rather than a democracy, similar to Iran and Israel.
Scarlett July 05, 2012 at 09:44 PM
MG Henry and Bud S. I am with you !! I understand that we can't and shouldn't FORCE our opinions on anyone else..... BUT if I am not mistaken (and I didn't do so well in History OR Government class) this country was founded ON Christian principals but ALSO so that we could have Freedom OF religion NOT freedom FROM religion. If the American Atheist Association (or whatever they call themselves) wins this arguement then aren't they FORCING their NON belief in Christianity on the rest of us. I am not asking any of them to come to the parade or a church service on Christmas eve, but cant they leave us alone to celebrate the season anyway we see fit. ? I think I recall seeing Atheist signs as well as a nativity scene last year ? Is the issue the tax payers paying staffers to put it up, take care of it and store it ???? If so why not have churches petition for the job I am SURE there are plenty that would apply and do so with all the displays that represents each religion or atheism ? Hey, I am just a piddly not extremely educated tax payer..... it's just my opinion ??????????????
Leftoflarry July 06, 2012 at 01:25 AM
This is simple...people... celebrating christmas however you want to celebrate it should be left at home and at church. THE COURTHOUSE IS NOT A CHURCH. IT IS PUBLIC LAND, AND AS SUCH, ALL MUST BE WELCOME OR NONE AT ALL. This is the basic principle behind the 1st amendment of our constitution. Our founding fathers were trying to avoid just this. But the christian right wing, wants to revise history, replace our secular republic with a dictatorial social theocracy. This is what they want. The question is...why do christians feel so threatened by keeping religion at home and in church? Why MUST they SHOVE it down our throats by using MY tax money to pay for a creche and a menorah? This is about keeping in line with the law of the land. Plain and simple.
Shlomo July 06, 2012 at 11:08 AM
Why don't those who are so vocal and dramatic in their objections over the display of the crèche on government property, direct their angst and objections over the fact that the Christmas Day holiday is clearly one that is religious-based, and therefore should not have been adopted by Congress as a federal holiday in the first place? Get that matter reversed and then there is no argument! But until then, one must accept the fact that the crèche is a legitimate symbol for recognizing Christmas, and if the government, whether it be on the National, State, or local level wishes to pay homage to this official “government holiday” by not conducting business that day, it should have the right to display any and all symbols that are represented by it, including the crèche. I also find it strange the there isn't even a strange objection over the display of a Menorah (not that I am advocating that this should happen) since the Jewish religious holiday of Hanukah, which the menorah represents isn't an official government holiday.
Dave Butler July 06, 2012 at 01:19 PM
Scarlett - The first few words of the First Amendment to the Constitution says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." By putting overt religious symbols on the Courthouse lawn (the building representing Constitutional justice), The County is, very directly, "establishing" a religious preference. This is an obvious problem and will likely result in a lost lawsuit, needlessly fought. As far as "founded on Christian principles", can you name even one principle that is specifically Christian that this country was founded on? You can't because it wasn't. It was founded on religious freedom, and the blatant attempt by the grounds committee to focus on Judeo-Christian symbols makes a mockery of this foundation. While I, personally, like Nativity scenes, why not just ask St. John's down the street to put it on their lawn. They have a lot of space, and it can still face King St.
Dave Butler July 06, 2012 at 01:33 PM
Shlomo - The Christmas/Holiday/End of Year/Solstice time has been celebrated by almost all religions and nations for a very, very long time. (Much longer than the time of Christ.) One thing almost everyone agrees on is that Christ was NOT born on December 25th. The date was agreed on to match existing holidays. Christmas is a national holiday, but that doesn't mean that we need to celebrate it by rubbing the noses of non-Christians in obvious religious symbols on the lawn of a Courthouse, the place to uphold the Constitution. Very few would complain about Santa, a tree, Frosty the Snowman, candy canes, or ribbons. The Courthouse lawn could be festive without being overtly religous. Let's keep the creches, menorahs, and angels on church lawns where they're much more appropriate.
MarkW July 06, 2012 at 01:37 PM
"Shlomo," interesting choice of names. Personally, I'm Jewish and i object to all religious symbols on public property. I love seeing Christmas lights, trees, and even Crèches being displayed. When my kids were younger, we used to drive around looking at the beautiful displays on lawns and at churches. But I've never understood this need to put religious symbols on public property. Put it up on your own lawn. I'll come and appreciate it there. More importantly, don't spend my tax dollars buying religious symbols, whether it's a chrèche, a menorah, or a Mishumaa Saba for Kwanzaa.
Kristen H July 06, 2012 at 02:28 PM
Shlomo -- The courts (not to mention the Constitution) disagree with you. You cannot legally purchase religious items with taxpayer money and display them in front of a government building. You make like Christmas is a federally mandated holiday rather than just a day off because nothing would get done anyway. The courthouse lawn isn't decorated for New Year's Day, Labor Day, or even the 4th of July. Why are we spending so much time, energy, and taxpayer money (both for the initial purchase and the inevitable lawsuit) trying to put a nativity scene in front of a government building? Since you bring up the menorah, I want to make sure people have the opportunity to see the menorah picked out by the committee. I understand that you didn't want a menorah, and during one committee meeting, the menorah referred to it as "top cover", only necessary to ensure that they could legally have the creche on the lawn. The menorah they picked out is Attachment 2 here: http://www.loudoun.gov/documents/11/7734/7736/7926/10222/Item%2007%20Recommendations%20from%20the%20Courthouse%20Grounds%20and%20Facility_201206071608077348.pdf. Since the committee refused a Jewish group's offer to help them pick out an appropriate menorah, I'd be interested in reactions from the Jewish community.
Dave July 06, 2012 at 07:22 PM
It may help clarify the situation to know that all eight judges who serve in the loudoun county courts have signed a letter that rejects religious displays of any kind on the courthouse grounds.
Mike Estock July 06, 2012 at 09:49 PM
Well, our forefathers are turning over in their graves. Don't you think they had religious figures in public. If they did, who are we to change this. They never said that we can't show religion, they just said we can't force it on any one. they also used to hand out bibles to children in school. Since when doe we or our courts know more than them?
Moishe Wheresken July 07, 2012 at 12:05 PM
I support the comments made by those here who are for the menorah and the creche, but take exception to Mr. Barne’s assumption that CGFC Chairman Good’s refusal to state or repeat what the County attorney Robert’s advice was to the committee. The fact that such advice was given during a closed door session, in and of itself barred Mr. Good, as well as all others from sharing with any outsider what took place, and this is something that as a journalist, Mr. Barnes should have recognized. I think Mr. Barnes owes Mr. Good and the readers an apology for his assumption that the attorney was advising against the religious displays. And remember Mr. Barnes that when you “ASSUME”, you make an ASS out of U and ME. And for those like Dave Butler and the others who are forever skirting the main issue about the Christmas Day and Hanukah holiday celebrations by trying to expand them into other non-related celebrations, ask yourself why you think that is even necessary. Does that same thought process apply to other holidays that occur throughout the year? Personally, I would like to see the US Government make Hanukah an official federal holiday as it has done for Christmas. To me that would be the fairer thing to, do plus it would give us two days off in December.
Satchmo July 07, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Moishe, from what I can tell there are over 300 recognized religions in the United States. Shouldn't we get a holiday for each of those religions based upon your logic? "That" would be the fair thing to do. At some point it would probably be easier to pick days we will be working rather than days we get off. Put a tree up and avoid an inevitable lawsuit.
Jim Barnes July 07, 2012 at 02:31 PM
Moishe, you make a good point about Clint Good. Even if the answer to Supervisor Williams's question would have been "yes," Good might still have refused to answer the question for the reason you gave. I believe he would have answered, but that, as you correctly point out, is just an assumption. But as to the larger point, I have talked with several people inside the county government, and I am reasonably confident that the CGFC's recommendation was not consistent with the County Attorney's advice.
Moishe Wheresken July 07, 2012 at 05:30 PM
So let me understand your thought process, Mr. Barnes. You are still of the opinion that had Mr. Good been advised by the County Attorney that including religious displays in the overall Holiday Display at the courthouse was OK, he (Mr. Good) would have resorted to unethical behavior by answering "Yes" to Mr. William's question, right? Is this the same type of ethical conduct that you, sir adhere to when you are investigating or actually reporting a story? And now you are going to tell your readers that on the basis of of personal conversations you had "inside the county government" you feel that you have enough (inside?) information to support your assumption about Mr. Good's reason for keeping a tight lip. Was one of the people you spoke to the County Attorney?; if so, perhaps you should let your readers know that he violated his code of ethics in telling you what occurred during the closed session. I do hope that that is not the case here. By the way, speaking of attorneys, since Mr. Williams is one, himself, he should have known better than to place Mr. Good in the uncomfortable position of being asked a question, that Mr. Good was barred from responding to. Yet, another example of questionable ethical conduct in regard to this matter.
Kristen H July 07, 2012 at 06:20 PM
Moishe, I was in the session once they opened it back up to the public, so I think I should chime in here. I would like a lawyer (or someone who knows the protocol on this) to weigh in on whether it was appropriate for Mr. Williams to ask Clint whether their recommendation was in line with what the County Attorney had recommended. I think that, as an attorney, Mr. Williams had given Mr. Good enough leeway to answer the question broadly, and it was Mr. Good's lack of knowledge about closed-session protocol that cause him to refuse to answer. From what I observed after the session opened back up, there was a marked change in the demeanor of the committee. Whereas members had referred to the menorah as "top cover" to shield themselves from legal trouble in the previous meeting, there was now no debate over whether a menorah was needed. However, Roy Liggett, who had not shown any hesitance in the previous session, changed his tune and voted against all religious elements. You can see his comments to Jim here: http://leesburg.patch.com/articles/committee-finalizes-holiday-display-recommendations. The minutes don't reflect what we heard in the meeting which was an attempt to avoid citing the county attorney. If you have other evidence of unethical conduct in regard to this matter, please do share. I think that the questionable ethics are from those attempting to use taxpayer money to purchase religious elements for a government-sponsored display.
Jim Barnes July 07, 2012 at 08:37 PM
Moishe, I appreciate the fact that you want to understand my thought process, so I'll make one last try to explain it. I don't think it was unethical of Supervisor Williams to ask the question, and I don't think it would have been unethical for Good to respond with a yes or no answer. I agree that Good was put in an uncomfortable position, and I believe he handled it as he thought best. There's nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. Since Williams is a lawyer, I also think there is a good chance that he already knew the answer to the question before he asked it. After all, the County Attorney was directed to brief the Board members individually or in pairs on this subject. I do, however, feel that it wouild be unethical for me to reveal the identities of confidential sources, so I won't do that.
joe brewer July 07, 2012 at 09:55 PM
God told me to tell you to leave religion out of it. God did not create religion man did. Religion was created to explain thunder and lightning by the cave man.The deadlist force on earth throughout history has been religion. Maybe we should revert back to the times of Odin and Thor maybe our children would be safer.
Dave July 08, 2012 at 08:54 PM
Cicinelli, advisory committee, board of supervisors, all the amateur constitutional lawyers...what about some attention to the loudoun judges who expressed their unanimous opinion to the board of supervisors last year that there should be no religious displays on the courthouse grounds!
joe brewer July 08, 2012 at 10:15 PM
A government building paid for by tax dollars which there will soon be fewer of because of Ken Reid and his Judas touch. Seperate chuch and state, simple enough. It's a work building not a centerpiece for a holiday. Keep the crap off the lawn and out of the building.
Moishe Wheresken July 09, 2012 at 11:36 AM
Kristen, I would think that the fact that the committee received advise from the County Attorney during a private session automatically would preclude the discussions that took place during that session from being recorded as minutes and then published for all to see. Your comment is suggesting otherwise. When the Board of Supervisors goes into a closed session, the results of those private sessions are never publicized either. And exactly what is meant by "top cover?" This is a term I am not familiar with. Jim: If lawyer-supervisor Williams knew the answer to the question he had posed to Mr. Good, (as you once again are ASS-UMING) why the heck would he have asked it? Does he enjoy putting people on the spot? Is that the role that a County Supervisor is supposed to play? It seems kind of hypocritical to me that you take such a sanctimonious style posture when it comes to protecting your "private sources", but yet seem to challenge Mr. Good in his similar action regarding a "privacy" issue. Unless you are willing to present concrete proof or real facts rather than conjecture, you should refrain from doing so, for all you are serving to do is to sway the public's thinking on this subject to conform with your stand, and that methodology is WRONG whether Jim Barnes is For or Against the inclusion of religious displays. Perhaps you need to adopt the very same code of ethics that Mr. Good did in handling supervisor Williams "loaded?" question.
Kristen H July 09, 2012 at 12:46 PM
I was referring to the minutes for the public part of the session, which I attended. To explain what "top cover" means, I will give you the context in which it was used. In a discussion about whether they needed a menorah or could get away with just a creche, a supervisor stated that they might need the menorah as "top cover" to avoid a lawsuit. Meaning that the menorah, rather than being displayed out of respect to Loudoun County's Jewish population, was discussed in the context of this meeting as simply a legal shield so that they could put up their nativity scene.
Ruth July 09, 2012 at 11:49 PM
I wish to comment about Dave Butler's line of reasoning by asking him if he thinks that by Congress having "established" Christmas Day as a national holiday, did that act not represent a "religious preference" by our government in direct violation of the Constitution? Also, what is this talk about celebrating this end of the year solstice event? I never saw a card in a Hallmark store that says: "Happy Winter Solstice," have you? Is this what you and your family celebrated when your were growing up, Dave? Was your home decorated with artificial snowballs? That aside, I wish to state that I am totally in favor with Moishe's desire to see Hanukah made an official US Holiday just like was done for Christmas.


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