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Decision Near on Religious Displays at Courthouse

Board of Supervisors expected to discuss holiday display policy on July 17.

The Loudoun County 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.

, 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.

, 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 , 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 , 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.

John Mileo July 17, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Kristen, Stop with the "taking offense"" stand, for it wears thin, and it is not my intention to offend anyone but to offer another and perhaps challenging and even controversial perspective on the matter. And what makes you think that I am "dictating" to you or anyone how she/he is to celebrate Christmas or any other holiday? With that said, I sincerely would be most appreciative if you would please enlighten me as to the particulars surronding the stated challenge to Christmas as being designated a federal holiday and what body determined that it was now to be considered as a "secular" celebration, for I was totally unaware of this having happened. Thank you.
Kristen H July 17, 2012 at 08:20 PM
John, you have been antagonistic towards Beltway Atheists and I have found in your comments an attitude toward atheists that mirrors a large portion of Americans who simply don't like atheists (although I'm glad to be part of a community where "acceptability is on the rise" http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201206/atheist-acceptability-the-rise-in-america). Of course, I may be more sensitive because I am an atheist and I understand that by saying that out loud, I am inviting judgment. What atheist hasn't had someone express to them that they're "too nice" to be an atheist? It's a stigma, so forgive me if I'm overly sensitive about it. Here is some information about Christmas as a federal holiday. http://atheism.about.com/library/decisions/holydays/bldec_GanulinUS.htm. However, as with the forced secularization of the creche on the lawn by adding Santa, if I was among the faithful, I would consider this a blow. Religion, to me, is a personal thing. In this case, government intervention means forced secularization. Sure, you may have a creche on the courthouse lawn, but what does it mean when you had to put up a Santa to "secularize" it?
John Mileo July 18, 2012 at 09:20 AM
Kristen, While you may wish to interpret my comments made in opposition to the position held by the Beltway Atheists as "antagonistic" in nature, which I feel otherwise, I would then ask that you look at some of the statements that have been made by members within that very organization and ask yourself if they are not only "antagonistic", but downright insulting and somewhat threatening (particularly to those who embrace Christianity), as well. You may also wish to believe that I hold a grudge or a dislike toward those who practice atheism, but that is far from the truth, Kristen. What I don't like though, as Supervisor Reid asserted during last evening's board meeting, is when in an effort to move their cause forward, those holding true to a particular religious belief or none whatsoever, (as is the case at hand), take on a "militant attitude" toward others. An extreme example of this behavior occurred here in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, and by the way, Kristen, that action in my view, is something that one should find "offensive," and not the display of religious symbols, in conjunction with those that are secular on a courthouse lawn. I do wish to thank you for bringing to my attention, the Gaulin case. However, I wish highlight the fact that the views expressed by Justice Dlott about Christmas Day having become "secularized" are just that, and at the end of the day she rejected the plaintiff’s claim. Suggestion: Why not view the creche as a secular display?
Kristen H July 18, 2012 at 01:44 PM
John, People are allowed to be offended by more than one thing in their lifetime. In fact, you called the "skeleton santa" offensive. This is the second time you have used 9/11 to discount my opinion during the course of this debate. The courthouse display debate has absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, and I don't understand why you would think otherwise. This debate is about the county paying for religious symbols to display on a courthouse lawn. You may want us to view the creche as "secular", but I don't think the committee's intention in holding multiple meetings on the subject and working legal voodoo was to make it okay to display just any baby and his family. Cuccinelli, whose decision you were using as a basis, has shown a certain fondness for high-profile lawsuits. I'm afraid that his intention was to create another one at Loudoun County's expense. I'm disappointed that the Board is going along with it -- at Loudoun County's expense.
John Mileo July 18, 2012 at 04:19 PM
Kristen, I acknowledge that I did comment that I found the skeleton Santa to be offensive, as in my view it was a highly disrespectful display. What I still find amazing though is how some people will go as far as to say to someone that they are "offended" when one may mistakenly extend the good wishes of their own religious holiday to one who does not celebrate it. Personally, when a person of the Jewish faith has made that very mistake by wishing me a "Happy Hanukah," I typically (and respectfully) respond by saying: "Thank you and a good yontif to you and yours." For what could possibly be "offensive" over a person extending the well-wishes of his/her own holiday to another regardless as to whether or not the other individual shares that same religious belief? So it is with this example in mind that I may appear to take exception to what I would describe as an overuse of the term "offensive" or any over sensitivity to matters that amount to minutiae. In closing I would like to suggest that you and I need to agree to disagree. I do wish to thank you for your straight-forward views on this issue, which you have always expressed in a respectful manner during our exchanges.

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