Skeleton Santa Claus hanging from a cross. A painting featuring the manger birth of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. A traditional Nativity scene. The local Jedi wishing that the Force is with our troops.
It must be Christmas in Leesburg, Va. Keeping with the historic town’s new holiday tradition, all of these scenes were erected in the yard in front of the Loudoun County Courthouse last year by community groups hoping to share their own brand of season’s greetings.
Nontraditional and provocative holiday displays have been featured on the yard since 2009, when the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors lifted a ban on courthouse displays and allowed community groups “equal access” to the grounds. And while this leaves the door open to anyone to showcase his beliefs, not everyone likes the way that different groups have been decking the grass mall.
“[This is] another example of putting fingers in eyes of shoppers and businesses and trying to make a mockery of Christmas holidays — that’s what they’re really about. They’re hell bent on trying to destroy people’s holidays,” said Ken Reid, a supervisor representing the Leesburg district.
In early December, the county-sponsored Christmas tree, menorah and Santa Claus and sleigh decorations will go up. New, stricter regulations for the community displays, however, may limit the number and variety of holiday wishes greeting people in the historic downtown. Earlier this month, the board of supervisors required that someone be with each display at all times.
There were nine displays on the Loudoun County courthouse lawn last year, including Middleburg resident Jeff Heflin Jr.’s controversial crucified Santa Claus.
So far, according to Loudoun County officials, there is just one application for a December display — an information booth run by the American Atheists.
Rick Wingrove, the Virginia director for American Atheists, will have a booth featuring banners with quotations from historical atheists Albert Einstein and John Adams. It will also feature public readings of books such as Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” Mr. Wingrove also received a permit for his display in November, and has spent weekends this month minding the booth. He does not anticipate that someone will be on the lawn every day in December and, so far, the display has been taken down each evening.
“The board made it really onerous for everyone but religious groups to put up displays,” said Mr. Wingrove said. “We will not have the exposure as in the past.”
The displays and public outcry have made Leesburg’s courthouse lawn a must-see decoration destination. The notoriety has brought new attention to the rest of the downtown district.
“I wouldn’t say the publicity, the reputation, or the rigmarole have been negatively impacting downtown Leesburg,” said Butch Porter, president of the Leesburg Downtown Business Association.
Ed Shihadeh, owner of Shoes Cup and Cork Club, a coffee shop across the courthouse lawn, said there is an uptick in business when the displays are set up, though the overall impact has not been significant.
Similar tensions between religious groups and atheists have played out in Santa Monica, Calif.
A firestorm ensued last year after atheist groups put up anti-God messages next to Nativity scenes along the Santa Monica beach in Palisades Park. The atheist groups’ displays, like the crucified Santa in Leesburg, were subsequently vandalized.
Earlier this month, a Los Angeles federal judge declared a ban on all unattended private displays from city parks.
While Mr. Wingrove has participated in courthouse lawn holiday decorations for years, he criticized this year’s Loudoun County-sponsored displays that can stand unattended — a Christmas tree, menorah and Santa with his sleigh — as promotion of specific religious beliefs and a violation of the separation of church and state.
But Mr. Reid disagrees.
“None of the religious organizations in the county have had any problem with what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s strictly this group of terrorists. They’re fanatics who basically want to stamp out religion in all public life and property.”