Virginia County Rules Christmas Displays Can Stay

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to uphold a policy that allows unattended displays, including religious ones, to be placed on the public grounds of the county courthouse in downtown Leesburg — effectively ending the first battle in the War on Christmas 2010. In an 8 to 1 vote the board put an end to a heated debate that began in November 2009, when a resident-led commission decided that the county should ban unattended displays outside the courthouse. That decision, prompted by a rising number of requests to use the space, drew the ire of residents when the commission denied a rotary group’s application to place a Christmas tree on court grounds.

Residents speaking in favor of allowing religious displays on the grounds have dominated previous public hearings. They did so again at a public input session Tuesday at which the board was urged to maintain the current policy by Leesburg Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), local clergy members and scores of residents wearing blue pins that read “Merry Christmas — God with us.”

The appeals of those who addressed the board ranged from impassioned pleas to respect the Constitution to angry claims of religious persecution.

“Christianity is under attack,” Leesburg resident Barbara Bayles-Roberts said. As for those who don’t believe in God, she added, “there is a holiday for them, and it’s called April Fools’ Day.”

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) also weighed in on the matter in an opinion dated Aug. 20, saying that local governments should not be compelled to ban holiday displays that include religious symbols. The opinion was a response to a request from Marshall, who asked whether Loudoun is required to prohibit holiday displays on public property.

Miller, who cast the lone opposing vote, expressed concern that the right to due process was being overshadowed by the right to religious freedom, adding that jurors or defendants might be intimidated by displays outside the building. People do not come to the courthouse to see religious displays, Miller said: “They come to the courthouse to see justice done.”

But the remaining supervisors were ultimately united in their desire to maintain the current policy in the hope that the use of the property will reflect a spirit of inclusion and tolerance.

“People who preach the First Amendment need to abide by the First Amendment,” said Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), who added that he would be willing to revisit the matter next year if an incident such as the one that occurred last year — when an unpopular display was stolen — is repeated this holiday season.

Supervisor Andrea McGimsey (D-Potomac) said she thinks the courthouse grounds should be “a vibrant place” where the community can express itself.

“I hope we can put this issue to rest, finally,” she said.

Don’t hold your breath.

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