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Board’s Decision on Courthouse Displays Was One of Its Worst

The decision to allow displays caused needless acrimony during the season of Advent.

 

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 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.

Mimi Geller January 13, 2012 at 12:29 AM
Thank you for your very sane and sensible article. I agree wholeheartedly with it...and I'm an atheist. I love Christmas: the decorations, the music ( particularly the traditional carols and a chance to sing "Messiah"), the food, the presents, the kids on Santa's lap. A tree with lights would be great on the courthouse lawn. There is plenty of opportunity for nativity scnes on church property and private homes. I didn't know about the Methodist church live nativity, but will make an effort to see it next year.
Jim Barnes January 13, 2012 at 01:45 AM
Thanks, Mimi! Just to clarify -- the Methodist Church has a Nativity scene on display for several weeks around Christmas, but it's the Presbyterian church, one block west, that does the Living Nativity. It's usually held just one evening, a few days before Christmas.
malcolm king January 13, 2012 at 12:56 PM
M king Im glad to see we still have a few people that can THINK.
alex cudaback January 13, 2012 at 01:38 PM
While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of Mr. Barnes' article on Christmas displays, I think the Patch's decision to include it in "News" as well as "Opinion" was a mistake. The acrimony and partisanship Mr. Barnes seems interested in defusing are only encouraged by mislabeling what are clearly opinions as facts or "news." Keep thoughtful arguments like Mr. Barnes' in the "Opinion" section of the Patch; save "News" for factual reporting.
loudoun1 January 14, 2012 at 03:29 AM
Good comments Jim, I agree with you. I think they have allowed the chaos to continue because they like the press and attention it generates.
CH January 19, 2012 at 03:45 PM
Great assessment. I hope the new board heeds your advice. It is long past time for our elected officials to start making good public policy decisions for ALL of the citizens instead of bowing to the strident shrieks of the organized few.

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