UPDATE: Board decides to keep displays; vote will be moved to next year’s board
It’s that time of year again, when holiday cheer fills the air and the Loudoun County Courthouse lawn is scattered with potentially offensive displays and outraged citizens.
One display has already received some extra attention. The display in question, a skeleton in a Santa suit on a crucifix, was torn down by a vandal around noon on Dec. 5, according to Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Kraig Troxell.
The owner of the display is Middleburg resident Jeff Heflin Jr., according to Julie Withrow, a Loudoun County administrator.
On Heflin’s application for inclusion in the courthouse display, he described his entry as “art work of Santa on a cross to depict society’s materialistic obsessions and addictions and how it is killing the peace, love, joy and kindness that is supposed to be prevalent during the holiday season.” Heflin is not part of any organization and sponsored the display himself.
According to an email sent by Leesburg Town Council member and Republican Leesburg Supervisor-elect Ken Reid, he was “utterly outraged” when he saw the display.
“It is my intent as the new Supervisor for Leesburg to seek changes in the county policy so these outrageous anti-religious displays are not debasing the lawn of our beloved courthouse,” Reid wrote in the email.
Loudoun resident Gisela S. Bresler wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors about her concerns with the display.
“Perhaps the person or organization that displayed this monstrosity wants to make a point that Christmas is dead, or that Christ is dead,” Bresler wrote.
“The point is that free speech is a two-way street. It is fine for whoever decided to display this obnoxious thing to have it displayed, but it is also correct for those who are insulted by it to speak against it. I am, therefore condemning this and I am repulsed by the fact of it,” the letter continued.
“I don’t like Santa on the cross, either. I think that’s disgusting,” Supervisor Stevens Miller (D-Dulles) said. “That’s why I was the only supervisor to vote against using the courthouse lawn for displays of that kind.”
The removal of skeleton Santa
Withrow said that she received several calls from residents about about the display after it was taken down.
“I’ve had several calls from folks who observed a woman go onto the courthouse lawn and take down the Santa skeleton on the cross display and put it on the ground,” Withrow said. “One of our staff members asked her if it was her and she said no.”
“We’re there to protect the grounds, those displays are private property of the owner,” Withrow continued.
WUSA 9 reporter Peggy Fox was at the scene when the woman was vandalizing the piece. She said that a Loudoun County Sheriff’s deputy was watching and then approached the scene, but ended up speaking with Fox, not the woman. He informed Fox that she wasn’t allowed to film on the courthouse lawn.
“While I’m shooting her, I see a sheriff’s deputy and he ignored her and came to me,” Fox said. “He told me I couldn’t film on the lawn.”
According to Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne’s secretary, Alice Alkire, media are allowed to take photos on the courthouse lawn because it is public grounds.
Fox asked the deputy if he was going to do anything about the woman dismantling the display and he responded he wasn’t going to bother with it.
However, Troxell denied those allegations, and said the Sheriff’s Office is reviewing the procedures related to allowing cameras on the courthouse property .
“The deputy was out there taking a look at it to further investigate what had occurred,” he said.
“It later came to our attention that the resident dismantling the display was not the applicant who erected the item. It is our understanding the item was later removed by the applicant. The Sheriff’s Office is conducting a thorough investigation into this matter to determine what, if any, criminal violations have occurred and potential charges,” Troxell said in a release.
“We had the same thing happen a year ago when Ed Myers put up some vulgar parody lyrics of the ‘Twelve Days of Xmas,” said Miller. “Well, those came down within an hour and that’s vigilantes. What I think is stunning is that we have all these people who say we have a right to put whatever we want up because of the First Amendment. I can only hope that it’s different people who go out and tear down the ones they don’t like.”
Rick Wingrove, president of the Virginia Chapter of American Atheists, said the county needs to do something about having displays on the lawn.
Changes to the displays
A board-appointed citizen group, the Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee, recommended in December 2009 that the county ban courthouse displays. The board later denied the committee’s request. The debate resurfaced in July 2010 when the committee requested a ban be put in place on courthouse lawn displays. The board decided that anyone could put up displays on the lawn on a first-come, first-serve basis, with 10 spots, recently reduced to nine.
The courthouse lawn display issue was brought up during the board’s Dec. 6 meeting where Miller motioned for the rules of the displays to be suspended in order to discuss the issue. The motioned failed with a 5-4 vote.
Miller said the displays were “turning the courthouse lawn into a chamber of horrors.” Other supervisors agreed that the displays were causing more of a problem than necessary.
“I think I’ve reached a point where I think, in the terms of the physical conditions of the courthouse grounds and the uproar we have each year, I’m for ‘no’ on courthouse displays,” Supervisor Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin) said.
Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) said she was tired of seeing such animosity on the displays.
“I’m tired of it. It’s December and, regardless of what you celebrate, isn’t this the time to put the energy to advancing something in the community to do something good?” Waters asked. “Generally I’d like to see the community stop having this nastiness and put your energy to something good instead of just being mean.”
Chairman Scott York (R-At Large) said that it is now a timing issue and it will be brought up early next year with the new board.