In Loudon County, Virginia, the county board didn’t want to let Christmas displays on the courthouse lawn go down without a fight. Once upon a time a community could put up Santa and his sleigh without a militant anti-religion or non-Christian group threatening law suits, but no longer, especially in a community so close to Attorney Central, Washington, D.C. Other communities have gotten away with pan-religious displays—a pretty silly solution, I think, since Christmas is a Christian and secular holiday but has exactly nothing to do with Islam, Buddhism or the others—but again, once atheists organized and pressed the issue that the state supporting all religion was tantamount to promoting a religion, “inclusive” displays must be open to groups actively hostile to the religious displayers. Can we guess what will happen in such an environment? Yes? Well, the Loudon County board couldn’t.
A sensible board-appointed citizen group, the Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee, recommended in December 2009 that the county ban courthouse displays. The board rejected the committee’s request. In July 2010, the committee again requested a ban be put in place on courthouse lawn displays. The board, in its infinite wisdom, decided that anyone could put up displays on the lawn with ten spots open on a first-come, first-serve basis, pending county approval.
Yes, this was bound to turn out well, pull the community together, and promote the good feelings of the holiday season! Thus we reached Stage One in our ethics train wreck: official incompetence. The board’s actions lit the fuse of a cultural bomb, and only a Christmas miracle could have kept it from detonating.
So the displays were duly allotted thusly:
You can see two nativity scenes, the predictable Flying Spaghetti Monster display ridiculing all religion, the atheist display, and other benign additions. Hmmmm...but what, pray tell, is the “Santa cross?” Oh, just this…
It’s a crucified Santa, who has rotted away to a skeleton!
How nice for the children!
And thus we have Stage Two of the ethics train wreck: gratuitous and intentional offensiveness. Having been given the opportunity to be a malicious trouble-maker by the foolish board, some malicious trouble-maker, in this case, one named Jeff Heflin Jr., decided to grab it. On Heflin’s application for inclusion in the courthouse display, he had described his entry as “art work of Santa on a cross to depict society’s materialistic obsessions and addictions and how it is killing the peace, love, joy and kindness that is supposed to be prevalent during the holiday season.” He did not mention that his artwork was also a direct affront to peace, joy, love and kindness, as it was calculated to outrage and upset people. The board, clueless as ever, apparently had no hint of this from the description “Santa on a cross.” In their defense, the description didn’t suggest a dead Santa.
Then Mary Czarnecki, a resident of Leesburg, Virginia, heard about the dead Santa display, and was horrified. From the Washington Post report:
“She thought about the children who might see it, and be traumatized by a possibly crucified Santa. (She’s a young grandmother.) She was offended as a Christian at the use of the cross. It did not seem funny, and the implied message of “Christmas commercialized to death” seemed insignificant to Czarnecki. “So I parked my car and walked over,” she said….Rather than rip it to the ground, she carefully picked Santa and the suit off the cross and laid it down piece by piece. As she did, she thought to herself, “This is awful. Everybody knows this is awful. Is there any question it’s inappropriate?”
…“And I left,” Czarnecki said…. The display was later restored, then torn down again and damaged over the weekend. “I was deeply offended,” Czarnecki said. “It felt like a spiritual assault. The cross is a symbol that Christians and non-Christians recognize. Nobody has the right to put up such a thing.”
In fact, thanks to the board’s idiotic decision in July of 2010, Mary is wrong. The malicious Mr. Heflin did have a right, the display had been granted a permit, and the dead Santa qualified as protected speech. Was it right to put out such a tasteless display at Christmas time? Of course not. Did he have a right to do it? Absolutely.
“I don’t think that’s correct,” Czarnecki said when quizzed about the First Amendment protection guaranteed to Heflin’s skeletal Santa Claus. “Nobody can put whatever they want. If you deliberately attack a religion, it was threatening.”
And thus we have Stage Three, completing our train wreck: ignorance, anger, and conflict. This is what the board’s decision guaranteed, and what Heflin’s arrogant nastiness begged for. Only Czarnecki, the most sympathetic character in the drama, broke any laws, and the chances of her being prosecuted for doing something that 90% of the public would have liked to have done themselves is nil.
Still, Christmas, a cultural holiday that can and should cause communities to seek out their commonalities and celebrate, if not the religious holiday, then the unequivocally ethical values it symbolizes, has again been tarnished and turned into a battleground littered with the zealous, the self-righteous and the foolish….not to mention a skeleton, a cross, and a crumpled Santa suit.
Merry Christmas, Loudon County.