All expression, including religious messages, welcome in public forum, says ACLU
Loudoun County, VA – The ACLU of Virginia today faxed a letter to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors commending them for re-establishing a public forum at the county courthouse in Leesburg, but warning that the rules for use of the forum must meet constitutional standards. The Board of Supervisors is set to meet on Thursday to discuss new rules.
Two weeks ago the Loudoun County Grounds and Facility Committee announced it was shutting down the courthouse forum, which has served for many years as a place for temporary displays, including Christmas displays erected by private groups.
The Board of Supervisors then reversed the Committee’s decision and announced that the Committee would be charged with creating new rules for use of the forum. More recently the Board indicated it would be addressing the rules itself on Thursday of this week.
“Public forums are the backbone of free speech and free speech is the backbone of our democratic society,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Public forums should be protected whenever possible.”
“While there has been controversy in the past about religious displays on public property, I think we’re starting to figure this out,” added Willis. A private religious display in a forum where all viewpoints are allowed is permissible.  On the other hand, if the government sponsors the display, or provides more favorable access to the forum based on religion, it is not permissible.”
“The key here is the rules for using the public forum, and that is exactly what the Board of Supervisors will be addressing on Thursday,” said Willis. “With our letter, we wanted to make sure they were familiar with the law.”
In 1996, the ACLU represented Rita Warren who was denied the right to erect a small nativity scene at the City of Fairfax government complex, in part because she was not a resident of the city. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Warren had the same right to use the forum as anyone else, despite being a non-resident and regardless of her religious message.
A copy of Willis’s letter to the Board of Supervisors can be found online at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20091208LoudonPublicForum.pdf.
Contact: Kent Willis, (office) 804-644-8022

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