With the Loudoun supervisors’ vote July 17, the county courthouse in Leesburg may yet again be the setting for abashing news reports during the holidays.
On a 6-2 vote, the board approved a government-sponsored winter display consisting of a crèche (a depiction of the birth of Jesus as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke), a menorah and a Santa and reindeer scene.
Supervisors Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run) and Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) opposed the recommendation, which came from both the board’s finance committee and the Loudoun County Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee. Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) was absent from the meeting.
The approved display will also include wreaths and garlands of greenery hung on the fence of the courthouse lawn, and a tree to be placed in the traditional spot on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. Placement of the other display items will be on the lawn beside the tree, the committee’s recommendation states.
Loudoun County’s holiday display at the courthouse has made unwanted national headlines in recent years. Last December, a “skeleton Santa” on a cross outside the courthouse was vandalized, leading Christian and atheist groups alike to hold peaceful demonstrations on the county property.
Local atheists continue to address supervisors, urging them not to allow religious displays on government property. Loudoun County, they say, is setting itself up for a lawsuit by sponsoring certain religions on government property.
Chairman Scott York (R-At Large) balked at those threats during the July 17 meeting, saying previous court cases and a recommendation from Virginia’s attorney general pave the way for both religious and secular displays on government grounds.
“This is following what our federal government is doing,” said York, referencing the holiday display at the White House ellipsis.
Williams, however, sees it as a matter of reputation. Why would the county want to continue to invite bad press and expose itself to potential litigation, Williams asked his colleagues.
“This is a policy matter. I’m motivated by two primary factors – one is the reputation of Loudoun County and the other is the established law,” Williams said. “In terms of reputation, this committee recommendation will continue to make Loudoun a national spectacle of a First Amendment debate on which the law has been well-established.”
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