Though the holiday season is generally considered a time of peace, controversy over holiday displays has turned the Loudoun courthouse lawn into a silent battleground for many local residents.
Loudoun supervisors ruled on the hotly-contested issue Sept. 8, voting to allow the first 10 applicants vying for space on the lawn to put up one display each, representing whatever beliefs they chose. The decision came after the Courthouse Grounds and Facilities committee banned all displays from the lawn in December 2009, leading to months of discussion.
But many Loudoun residents are still unhappy with the outcome. Some believe that all displays should be banned on the basis of separation of church and state, some believe that only explicitly religious displays should be allowed, and some are just upset at what they perceive as the hate that is ruining their holiday season.
The 10 courthouse displays include four atheist signs, a Christmas tree, a letter from Jesus, two nativity scenes, a Christian sign and a Jediist display.
Leesburg resident Richard Wingrove would prefer not to see any displays on the courthouse lawn. But the platform was too good to pass up.
“We decided that we would celebrate the separation of church and state, celebrate the solstice ,and make the important point that the appropriate place for religious displays is on religious grounds,” Wingrove said. His atheist display will be put up Dec. 18.
“When the government allows religious displays on the courthouse lawn, they are basically endorsing that religion,” he added.
Wingrove said that sometimes the motives of atheists can be misunderstood.
“We’re neighbors. We’re not the bogeyman, we’re not criminals, and we don’t eat babies,” he said. “We’re the guy next door to you.”
There is no war on Christmas, he said.
“If there were a war on Christmas, I would have gotten a memo,” Wingrove said. “All these stores like Walmart, Sears and Macy’s that are doing ‘holiday’ displays, all these things that make Bill O’Reilly apoplectic – I wish that we had the influence to be able to do that. But that is just the American people saying we’re no longer a Christian nation.”
Leesburg resident Don Phillips worked with the Knights of Columbus to put up a 12-foot Christmas tree with ornaments on Dec. 10. The group represents churches and religious figures throughout Loudoun.
Phillips, a Roman Catholic, believes all religious groups should be able to put up displays on the courthouse lawn. He takes issue, however, with atheist displays.
“Christmas is a season because of Jesus and they’re trying to get equal play for non-religious [displays],” Phillips said. “They’re trying to mock the Christian faith. With freedom of speech, there’s a limit on what you can do. This is disrespectful and insensitive.”
Phillips remembers admiring the Christmas displays as a boy.
“It just breaks my heart to see this kind of stuff,” he said. “We don’t mind if the Muslims or the Jews want to have something. We’re just upset at all the hate being displayed. That’s all it is, pure hate.”
When Middleburg resident Jenelle Embrey heard about the decision to open the lawn to all kinds of displays, she wrote a letter from Jesus to the people she considered the angriest: Christians.
“I anticipate some Christians getting angry at some of the other displays and it is that anger [I hope] to intercept and bring to reason,” she said. A former Christian, Embry has been an atheist for 10 years.
“I respect and appreciate followers of any religion, so long as they don’t hurt anyone,” Embry said.
In the letter, customized from a similar letter that Embry found online, she asks Christians not to put so much importance on what the holiday is called or whether certain displays are on the courthouse lawn.
“If you want to celebrate my birth, just get along and love one another,” Jesus says in Embry’s letter. “If you want to make a statement about your belief in and loyalty to me, then behave like a Christian. Make a statement with your kind actions.”
“I am God and can take care of myself,” the letter concludes.
Leesburg resident Eric Santiago coordinated a Jediist display, to be put up around Dec. 16.
“It will highlight the ridiculousness of courthouse displays,” he said.
The display will either be a sign with the tenets of Jediism or will be a mannequin arrangement including a figure of Luke Skywalker.
“I just hope a few people will get a chuckle out of it. Maybe it will make a few of them stop and think,” Santiago said.
“If there isn’t enough space on the courthouse for every single religious faith to be equally represented during a season of good will, perhaps setting up any holiday display on the courthouse lawn is wholly inappropriate,” he added.
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