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Committee Debates Holiday Display Components

Straw votes are taken on which displays to include on courthouse grounds in December.

Santa and the baby Jesus are in, but Frosty is out ... for now. The fate of the Menorah and Christmas angels are yet to be determined.

The Loudoun County Courts Grounds and Facilities Committee (CGFC) on April 24 discussed the components that should go into a government-owned holiday display on the courthouse property, and took straw votes on several proposed display items.

The biggest disagreement was over whether to include a Jewish Menorah as part of the display.

Committee member John Mileo argued that the county was best protected from legal challenges by limiting the display items to those that “pay homage to Christmas,” such as a crèche, Christmas tree and Santa Claus.

“Christmas Day is the only holiday occurring during the month of December or during the so-called holiday season that has been officially established as a federal holiday, which is also celebrated by our state and county,” Mileo said.

Attempting to recognize other holidays “would surely open up the floodgates to inclusion of the type of offensive displays that have been displayed in the past,” he said.

Robert Lynd argued that according to an opinion issued by Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, the crèche would only be permissible if it were balanced by other religious and secular displays, such as a Menorah. He said the county would therefore be on more solid legal ground by including it.

In a series of straw votes, the committee voted unanimously in favor of a crèche, Christmas tree and holiday greenery. By a 5-3 vote, the committee voted to keep the Menorah, pending an opinion by the county attorney. However, the committee voted against having a snowman.

Mileo proposed that the county’s crèche be limited to “the baby Jesus in the manger, the Virgin Mother and Father Joseph on either side, and three farm animals.”

He recommended that the crèche be as plain as possible, “not an overly religious-looking crèche," and suggested that angels not be included.

For the most part, the committee members appeared to be unfazed after Rick Wingrove, a member of American Atheists, addressed them at the beginning of the meeting.

Wingrove said a secular holiday tree would be acceptable to him and his group, but they would actively oppose overtly religious displays on the courthouse grounds.

“The county simply cannot put up a Nativity scene,” he said, citing several court decisions. “They will be sued and they will lose.” He predicted the ensuing legal proceedings would cost the county $2 million.

Later, during the committee’s discussion, Mileo said, “I heard Mr. Wingrove refer to it as a holiday tree,” he said, his voice rising. “It is a Christmas tree.”

Mileo also cited court decisions in support of his recommendation.

Earlier this month, members of the Board of Supervisors’ Finance/Government Services and Operations Committee . However, no one from the county attorney’s office was present for the April 24 meeting.

Kristen H May 21, 2012 at 05:29 PM
I thanked Jim for clarifying your remark as soon as I saw his comment. By that point in the discussion I was upset by the comments I had heard, including whether your committee would need to include a menorah as "top-cover”, as well as all of the other comments that made me feel unwelcome and unwanted in my own community. Your accusation that I was mocking you when I did not intend to do anything of the sort and, reading back, am unable to see in my comments, have not made me feel any more welcome. Instead, I feel that once your internet search determined that I am an atheist, my comments were read with much more vitriol and anger than I ever intended. I understand that the committee has consulted with the county attorney and it has been decided that, with enough other religious symbols surrounding the crèche, you may be shielded from court cases. As a Loudoun County citizen, I am happy that the committee is working to get their display up without creating any costly litigation. However, my concern isn't only for my tax dollars. My concern is exactly what Roy Liggett, your fellow committee member, said to Jim Barnes after the last meeting: "Liggett said that when people enter the courthouse, they should feel confident that they will receive a fair trial, and that the presence of religious displays might raise doubts for some people". His remarks are dead-on and reflect my interest in this issue perfectly. I do not feel comfortable as an atheist in Loudoun County.
Kristen H May 21, 2012 at 06:39 PM
I ran out of room in my previous comment, but I do want to thank you for your service on the committee. I think that citizen participation in local government is crucial, which is why my first comment urged people to come to the public meeting.
John Mileo May 26, 2012 at 11:58 AM
Kristen: With regard to your last sentence, I can relate to your feeling. Can you imagine for a moment how I must feel as a Christian living in Loudoun County with all of the angst and malice that is being directed toward this religious sect by the Beltway Atheists, which you, yourself are associated with?
Kristen H June 01, 2012 at 03:48 PM
The fact is, there shouldn't be any angst. This should be a non-issue. There should not be a statue of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in front of a courthouse. There should not be a menorah either, but the reason that I personally don't see as much of a problem with that is because I see it as at least an attempt to recognize that some residents of Loudoun County are not Christian. I don't harbor any malice and don't believe that I've demonstrated any. I do, however, feel angry and upset that the county is spending time and money on ensuring that there is a creche in front of the courthouse when people seem to agree that a simple tree would leave no one feeling discriminated against. This is a government building, not a church. It is also a place that should be dedicated to fair and unbiased justice. If I were to go to court in December and walk past religious symbols of any kind, I would simply not feel that I was walking into an unbiased building to receive a fair trial.
Long Time Loudouner June 01, 2012 at 06:20 PM
Loudoun County has far more pressing problems to deal with than how to decorate the courthouse lawn for INSERT RELIGIOUS HOLIDAY HERE. Please, give it a rest. Religion should not be the consideration of government...common sense should be.

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