By Kent Willis, Executive Director
This is a Christmas story (of sorts) with a happy ending (so far).
For a long, long time, come December each year, a group of Leesburg’s finest citizens placed a decorated tree and a crèche on the grounds of the Loudoun County Courthouse, located right in the center of this super-quaint, upscale little town. There the two Christmas symbols stood alone during the holiday season.
That is, until a few years ago, when Jews, Sikhs, and Muslims added their own displays.
Leesburg, like the rest of the nation, was diversifying, and the town’s traditional public forum, rightly so, was becoming a place for expressing the differing viewpoints of its residents.
But these newcomers, along with some others who had begun using the space, made county officials a little uncomfortable. So, this past summer a commission appointed by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors proposed to shut down the public forum at the courthouse.
An imbroglio of epic proportions ensued. County officials sniped, questioning one another’s commitment to religion and constitutional principles. The well-heeled groups behind the tree and the crèche pushed every button they could to keep the forum and their traditions alive. Even the Virginia Attorney General weighed in, issuing a formal legal opinion on the constitutional right of religious symbols to appear in public forums.
We were very much part of the discussion, too. For a couple of reasons, we encourage keeping traditional public forums extant. First the more places for freedom of expression the better as far as we’re concerned. Second, as private suburban malls take the place of town and city centers, traditional public forums such as the one in Leesburg are disappearing. Protecting what we have becomes even more important in this context.
These are not legal arguments, mind you, just a strong sense shared at the ACLU of Virginia that freedom of speech should not just be protected, but it should also be encouraged. We have, shall I say, a kind of faith in free speech—that when all ideas are allowed to be expressed, the good ones will enlighten us and the bad ones will ultimately be cast aside.
We didn’t invent this idea, by the way. You’ll find it articulated in different ways by other Virginians from the past, like Jefferson, Madison and Mason.
In the end, the ACLU of Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and the religious leaders of Loudoun County prevailed. The public forum at the courthouse remained.
So what happened this December? At last count, there were ten different displays at the courthouse: a Christmas tree, three manger scenes, five atheist expressions, and an arrangement featuring "the chosen one," Luke Skywalker of Star Wars fame.
That’s not exactly what the local supporters for keeping the forum envisioned, but in the end, everyone’s a winner. The forum, at least this year, reflects the seasonal sense of Christmas, the thoughts of those who don’t share the same feelings for the season, and even a little humor.
It’s very American in a way, making for a truly red, white and blue Christmas in Leesburg.
(Post blog note on religious expression in public forums: I’ve avoided a tangential excursion into the issue of when it is that private religious expression in government space violates separation of church and state and when it is protected by the Constitution. That’s not a subject for a blog, but a book. Suffice it to say the ACLU of Virginia -- like the Supreme Court and even Ken Cuccinelli -- believes that under most circumstances religious expression is as welcome in a traditional public forum as political, artistic or any other kind of expression. The key to protecting free speech, including free expression of religion, in a public forum is for there to be content neutral usage rules that neither advantage nor disadvantage religious expression.)
Court Denied Our Request to Stop Police Excessive Force