A Santa Claus skeleton draped across a crucifix on Loudoun County property sparked outcry Tuesday from as far away as California and prompted local leaders to demand a change in First Amendment interpretation.
Jeff Heflin Jr.’s holiday display on the county courthouse lawn is no longer standing, but Leesburg officials said their phones continued to ring off the hook with complaints about the ghoulish figure.
“I think it is horribly offensive,” said Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd. “It’s a tragedy because we really try to make the holidays something special for our residents. So for this to happen, it’s a slap in the face of Leesburg.”
Short of directing the outraged phone calls to the county’s Board of Supervisors, the Leesburg town council has no authority as to what can be displayed on the county property, which also happens to be in the heart of the historic town.
Disagreement about holiday displays are not new in Loudoun, which in 2009 lifted a ban on courthouse displays and allowed “equal access” to the grounds. Last year the county’s Board of Supervisors approved 18 general rules for use of the courthouse grounds, including during the holiday season.
There is room for only nine displays so the spots are handed out on a first come, first served basis, said Julie Grandfield, assistant to the county administrator. Applications are not censored, Ms. Grandfield said, because of “a First Amendment right.”
According to Mr. Heflin’s application, the message behind his display was to “depict society’s materialistic obsessions and addictions” and how they are killing the true message of the holiday season.
A call to Mr. Heflin’s residence was not returned.
Among the other applications this season were several to set up a Nativity scene, a sign to promote atheism, a sign to make clear the separation of church and state, and for a holiday message from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Ken Reid, a member of the Leesburg Town Council, spoke out against the Santa Claus skeleton display, which he recently called “disgusting and reprehensible.”
“My major concern was the impact this would have on young children and Leesburg’s annual Christmas and Holiday Parade, despite the stated intent of the folks who posted it,” Mr. Reid said Tuesday. “I urge groups to put sensible displays on the courthouse lawn and not turn the holiday into a spectacle.”
Ms. Umstattd said she has asked town staff to look into whether there are any hate-crime statutes that could be applied to resolve future issues with holiday displays.
“This is a degeneration of people’s religion,” she said. “We’re a very inclusive community and we do not believe that Christianity should be mocked, especially not a government property.”