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.

Kristen H July 12, 2012 at 10:18 PM
Wonderful piece, Jim. I agree wholeheartedly that for all the questions we may have about this, the most important is "why does the government need to do this?" Thank you for pointing out the debate over angels and the Star of David. When you have to change around religious items to make them acceptable (including "secularizing" the nativity scene by putting it next to Santa and his reindeer), I think that it not only becomes inappropriate for the reasons you describe above, but also because these are symbols that represent what people believe in. If you want to see a nativity scene, go to any of the churches down the street. You aren't going to see the one you want at the courthouse.
Moishe Wheresken July 13, 2012 at 03:21 PM
First off, I am glad to see that you have written this piece without the need to resort to assumptions, as you have previously done. Having said that---Why the criticism of the CGFC for its doing what it was asked to do: Come up with a Holiday Display recommendation, and one that is in compliance with case law and in line with the Commonwealth of VA attorney generals guidelines? While I think that there is validity with your challenge about the County Government’s use of taxpayer dollars to foot the bill for such a display, I do not understand why you think that such a display is an act that serves to be a "promotion" of any religion. This is similar to the illogical line of thinking that others who are opposed to the religious displays claim when they state that such an action violates the "Establishment Clause" of the U.S .Constitution. Do you truly believe that by erecting a nativity scene or a menorah on government property serves to represent the government's "establishment" of an official national religion as was done in England of yore? Finally Jim, when you recommend that government should "leave religion to churches" please don't forget that there are other institutions where religious beliefs are celebrated such as synagogues and mosques, to name just two.
Patti Maslinoff July 14, 2012 at 03:37 AM
To answer Moishe, I most certainly do believe that the display of a nativity scene or menorah represents the establishment of religion. There is nothing illogical about believing that the purpose of the display of symbols is to promote an idea. The Constitution says nothing to indicate that the establishment of religion must take the form of an "official national religion." You remind Jim that there are "synagogues and mosques, to name just two." It is fine for Jim to forget to mention that. He is a private citizen. It is not fine for the government to forget that the US is a country of many religions and no religion. The government should stay out of determining which religions deserve to be recognized on the courthouse lawn. I criticize the CGFC because I think that its goal was to find a way to display the nativity scene on government property such that in doing so it would not lose a lawsuit. If that means also displaying a menorah, they will throw that in. Note that I do not say that they are looking to avoid a lawsuit. There will be a lawsuit because there are many of us who do believe that their recommendation is unconstitutional. Furthermore, their goal was not to consider the diversity of Loudoun including those who do not subscribe to any religion. They are pursuing a divisive position. That is not a wise use of taxpayer money.
Moishe Wheresken July 14, 2012 at 01:03 PM
I disagree with your definition of "establishment" Patti and it should be clear to you what our founding fathers had in mind when they selected that specific word for inclusion in our Constitution. The two symbols in question clearly represent those that are directly tied to a specific holiday, and yes, it is quite obvious that the CGFC was toning both of them down, so-to-speak, so as not to place an overt emphasis on their "religious" aspects in order to be compliant with certain rulings. But Patti, exactly why must the celebration of Christmas and Hanukah be fashioned so as to be viewed as holidays that are "diverse" to all? Should the government change the focus of other "official" holidays to ensure that they are "diverse," as well? For example, I know I have seen comments by others here who ask if we should allow the KKK to burn a cross on the courthouse lawn as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Or shall we have a flag burning ceremony go on in conjunction with the honor that is paid on our courthouse lawn to our war dead on Memorial Day, so as to make certain that no one is being left out under your desire for the County to be "diverse?" And finally ask yourself if the matter at hand is truly so serious to cause some to bring forth a costly law suit against the County, which by doing so ,will adversely impact all taxpayers including the plaintiffs who bring forth the law suit?
Jim Barnes July 14, 2012 at 02:19 PM
Thank you for your comments, Patti. And just to clarify, I didn't forget to mention synagogues or mosques. It is true that one definition of "church" is "a building for public or especially Christian worship." I intended the broader meaning, "the clergy or officialdom of a religious body." (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)
Dave Butler July 17, 2012 at 12:52 PM
Moishe, let's not go off the deep end of absurdity. This has nothing to do with diversity, it has to do with the establishment of religion. Christmas is the only religious-based national holiday, so it is the only one under consideration for comment. The County can avoid a lawsuit by simply not approving a manger scene and menorah. If they do approve it, the lawsuit, fortunately, will probably not be too costly because the County will quite likely lose quickly. The CGFC knows what they are doing is not in line with established legal precedent, but they are going ahead anyway. The only possible reason, which some have admitted, is to promote Christianity. The menorah is just "top cover". Promoting any religion is not the place of the government, especially at the courthouse.
John Mileo July 17, 2012 at 04:57 PM
Dave: Following with your own line of thinking, why wouldn't you view the fact that the government turned the "religious-based" holiday of “Christmas” into a nationally-observed one to be in and of itself, an act of promoting Christianity? And if you do feel so strongly against the fact that it does have this distinction, then I would think that you should also object to the fact that government enterprises do not conduct business on Christmas Day. Lastly, as someone who seems to be so strongly opposed to this issue, I gather that you yourself, go to work on December 25th each year.
Kristen H July 17, 2012 at 06:05 PM
John, I'd just like to point out to you that we are not asking you to change the way that you personally celebrate a holiday, and I take offense to the fact that you are dictating how I should celebrate this holiday. As you know, I am an atheist. However, I spend each Christmas with my family. We don't go to church, we don't celebrate the religious aspects of the holiday, but we do spend the day together since everyone has off and there's nothing else to do. I've mentioned before I may have tried to argue against it if it wasn't in the 1800's when that happened, but even though I know atheists aren't always the best at PR, they know where to draw the line. Trying to get rid of a day off of work might just be that line. Also, just so you know, it has been challenged as a federal holiday and it was ruled that it was now secular. However, creches are not.
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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