The Loudon County Courthouse Christmas Display Fiasco: Anatomy of an Ethics Train Wreck

Believe it or not, this is a train wreck.

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!

Falalalala Lalalala!

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.

43 thoughts on “The Loudon County Courthouse Christmas Display Fiasco: Anatomy of an Ethics Train Wreck

  1. Christmas is descended from a long line of religious holidays, going back to ancient pagan celebrations of the renewed strength of the Sun after the Solstice. The brotherhood of all mankind has always been one of the themes of Christmas, so how are displays including multiple religions unacceptable?

    As to the crucified Santa, I get what he’s saying, it’s rather crude and amateurish, and obviously meant to get someone’s goat, but I find Czarnecki’s all too common low-grade thinking more disturbing. In her eyes, only expressions that confirm her own beliefs are valid. America won’t be destroyed by pranksters like Heflin, it is being destroyed by people like Czarnecki who are no different than, say, a Muslim extremist attacking a Christian shrine, because it offends him.

  2. Memo to those who are offended by Christmas:

    1) Get over yourself.
    2) Once you’ve done that, get smart and promote your own damned holiday. If enough of us like it and embrace it, good on you. HInt: It’ll probably take a while. Several generations, for a guess. Be patient, but optimistic. Remember, Kwaanza was the brainstorm of a political activist.
    3) Be careful what you wish for. Holidays have a knack for being co-opted by the moneychangers in the temple. Have fun while you can!

  3. Can’t we keep hateful,political protestations out of the holidays when most people just want to share good times and food with family and friends,spread a little good cheer,roast a few chestnuts and let the kiddies enjoy Santa?

  4. militant anti-religion

    Yea… militant… because they peacable, but firmly, request that the constitution not be violated. That’s what people use militant for in today’s society. Argh.

    once atheists organized and pressed the issue that the state supporting all religion was tantamount to promoting a religion

    You’ve read the federalist papers, right? Supporting all religion was intentionally not allowed.

    Aside from the gratuitous and incorrector attacks on atheists, I agree with your piece.

  5. I agree with necrotizingfascism’s closing sentence: “America won’t be destroyed by pranksters like Heflin, it is being destroyed by people like Czarnecki who are no different than, say, a Muslim extremist attacking a Christian shrine, because it offends him.”

    Though I can see the obvious impropriety of Czarnecki’s “intervention” – it seems these days, most of us are encouraged to regard such and similar as mere, albeit overreaching, “activism” (pick your Occupy faction) – I still very honestly do not know, cannot imagine, and thus would like to know, what specific laws Czarnecki might be suspected of breaking.

    • still very honestly do not know, cannot imagine, and thus would like to know, what specific laws Czarnecki might be suspected of breaking.

      I think it would fall under vandalism or criminal mischief. Most likely a bad, overbroad law.

      • The skeleton was officially a loaned private work of art, validly licensed by the County for public display. I’d say vandalism and destroying private property would be pretty easy to prove, if one were so inclined…a great candidate for prosecutorial discretion, which I know you hate.

        • If they normally prosecute vandalism of property licensed by the county for public display, they should prosecute this. If not, then they shouldn’t. I’d feel the same if the vandalized display had been a nativity scene or one of the ones promoting atheism.

          Would you feel the same way about no prosecution if this had been a nativity scene?

          • No.
            If said nativity scene was the only display in violation of the Constitution, YES.
            This display should not have been approved; the description was fraudulent, and the Board was moronic. She performed a public service, removing a nuisance, but happened to break the law.

            Would you feel the same if the “art” were a burning cross?

            • No.
              If said nativity scene was the only display in violation of the Constitution, YES.

              Um…So you’re saying Santa on the cross is in violation of the constitution? On what theory?

              This display should not have been approved; the description was fraudulent, and the Board was moronic.

              I don’t see how this display could be legally barred. The board may have been moronic for creating a limited public forum to try to sneak religion in, but once they did that, they had to follow the rules.

              She performed a public service, removing a nuisance, but happened to break the law.

              It doesn’t matter if you break the law, so long as what you did removes what some people see as a nuisance.

              Would you feel the same if the “art” were a burning cross?

              Yes I would. For prosecution, the content of what was vandalized shouldn’t matter. You think that the government should protect some people’s property less because of the content of their speech. I find that to be an amazingly bad idea.

              • 1.“Um…So you’re saying Santa on the cross is in violation of the constitution? On what theory?”
                No, that wasn’t what I said. I gave you the conditions under which I would cheer a vandal taking down a creche. The reason for taking down the skeleton would be different, since it does not advocate a religion. The reason for taking down the skeleton is that
                it is a vile image for display at this time of year in a public place, and should have been rejected by a responsible authority just as a pornographic display would be rejected.


                2. I don’t see how this display could be legally barred. The board may have been moronic for creating a limited public forum to try to sneak religion in, but once they did that, they had to follow the rules.

                Oh, I think it could have been barred, not for speech content but for violating community standards of taste and decorum in the public square,

                3. 3.It doesn’t matter if you break the law, so long as what you did removes what some people see as a nuisance./em>
                Not what I wrote. It matters; it always matters. I wouldn’t argue if she was fined…she agreed to be punished when she took the action. It is acceptable civil disobedience. If I were the DA, I wouldn’t prosecute it, as would be within my discretion, because she was expressing the majority view in the community, and the display was erected in bad faith. I would like to hear the real reason she hasn’t been prosecuted, though. The DA has an obligation to make it clear, if he isn’t going to enforce the law, why it’s the right thing to do.

                4. “Would you feel the same if the “art” were a burning cross?”
                Yes I would. For prosecution, the content of what was vandalized shouldn’t matter. You think that the government should protect some people’s property less because of the content of their speech. I find that to be an amazingly bad idea.

                But as you know, courts have ruled that burning crosses are not protected speech, but rather threats. And the Santa could be construed the same way.

                • 1. Okay. So, you are again saying that prosecution should be based on the content of speech…and that vigilante justice should go unpunished, so long as they have the moral highground.

                  2.
                  Oh, I think it could have been barred, not for speech content but for violating community standards of taste and decorum in the public square.

                  That’s “I know it when I see it” BS. If this violates taste and decorum, then, by any somewhat objective standard, so does Jesus on the cross in front of half the churches in my area, or skeleton displays during halloween.

                  3.
                  If I were the DA, I wouldn’t prosecute it, as would be within my discretion, because she was expressing the majority view in the community

                  That captures what I dislike about your opinion very well. Instead of protecting everyone equally, you would use your powers to protect certain people. I think that everyone (even those with vile opinions) need to be protected.

                  I would like to hear the real reason she hasn’t been prosecuted, though. The DA has an obligation to make it clear, if he isn’t going to enforce the law, why it’s the right thing to do.

                  I agree wholeheartedly with this.

                  4.
                  Burning crosses on someone else’s yard is akin to putting up a skeletonized santa on the cross on someone else’s yard, not putting it up in a public forum. The analogy fails.

                  • 1. Okay. So, you are again saying that prosecution should be based on the content of speech…and that vigilante justice should go unpunished, so long as they have the moral highground.

                    I’m not saying it SHOULD go unpunished. I’m saying that it is a justifiable decision not to punish it. Law enforcement requires discretion. I don’t think your context-blind theory of law enforcement is practical, and I don’t think it would be tolerated. We don’t prosecute 90 year old men who kill their 90 year old spouses who are dying in agony already. It undermines the rule of law, even though the law technically requires it.

                    2.
                    “Oh, I think it could have been barred, not for speech content but for violating community standards of taste and decorum in the public square.”

                    That’s “I know it when I see it” BS. If this violates taste and decorum, then, by any somewhat objective standard, so does Jesus on the cross in front of half the churches in my area, or skeleton displays during Halloween.
                    No, that’s a real judicial standard. In some realms, precise definitions are impossible, much as we would like to believe otherwise.

                    3.
                    “If I were the DA, I wouldn’t prosecute it, as would be within my discretion, because she was expressing the majority view in the community”

                    That captures what I dislike about your opinion very well. Instead of protecting everyone equally, you would use your powers to protect certain people. I think that everyone (even those with vile opinions) need to be protected.
                    Ideally, yes, in the real world, impractical. If someone takes a fire hose to Fred Phelps one of these days at a veteran’s funeral, they will be more leniently treated because of the provocation.

                    4.
                    Burning crosses on someone else’s yard is akin to putting up a skeletonized Santa on the cross on someone else’s yard, not putting it up in a public forum. The analogy fails.

                    I was talking about on the public grounds for both the burning cross and Skeleton Santa. I guarantee many courts would have no trouble declaring the former to be a racial threat.

                    • 1.
                      Context dependent is different from content dependent. Context should matter. Content shouldn’t.

                      Also, your example is why we should legalize assisted suicide, not why we should bend the law. What undermines the rule of law here is the stupidity of the rule of law.

                      2.
                      It’s a real standard, and it’s real BS in all it’s forms.

                      3.
                      Whether it would happen or not is not the issue. The issue is that it’s a violation of the constitution.

                      4.
                      If courts did such, I’d say they were wrong. Also, they would likely base their decision on the history of burning crosses. There is no history of putting crucified santa skeletons up to threaten a group of people. Still fails.

                    • 1.
                      Context dependent is different from content dependent. Context should matter. Content shouldn’t.

                      Huh? Content is changed by context. A swastika in Nazi Germany means one thing, in Skokie it means something else.

                      Also, your example is why we should legalize assisted suicide, not why we should bend the law. What undermines the rule of law here is the stupidity of the rule of law.
                      But I don’t believe we should legally suicide. I believe that all laws need margins for ethical discretion, because laws cannot be perfect.

                      2.
                      It’s a real standard, and it’s real BS in all it’s forms.

                      Respectable opinion; I disagree.

                      3.
                      Whether it would happen or not is not the issue. The issue is that it’s a violation of the constitution.

                      Yes. I still wouldn’t shed any tears over it.

                      4.
                      If courts did such, I’d say they were wrong. Also, they would likely base their decision on the history of burning crosses. There is no history of putting crucified santa skeletons up to threaten a group of people. Still fails.

                      It’s clearly not based on history; the assessment of the meaning is, but the prohibition isn’t. Would a reasonable person find that the message is threatening and “fighting words”? The woman who tore down Santa says she did. Was it reasonable? I don’t think so, but a judge might.

                    • 1.
                      You’re basing the difference on the content in that context. That’s context, not content. (Also, if Germany had the same laws we do, it wouldn’t be different.)

                      You think something shouldn’t be prosecuted, but be illegal? What is the benefit of that. Please show your work.

                      3.
                      No tears for phelps, but tears for our country.

                      4.
                      I don’t think you have that correct. The burning cross is prohibited because of the emotions and beliefs it denotes…which is based on its history. If it didn’t have that history, it wouldn’t be considered a threat. Crucifingle doesn’t have that history. If a judge finds it reasonable to consider this a threat, the judge is wrong.

                    • Anybody with an ounce of sense can see the a crucified Santa is intended to incite by either a trouble making teen or someone with an anti-Santa or anti-Christmas agenda. You have to twist yourself up in knots to see it otherwise. Whether or not it should be illegal it’s certainly unethical and that’s what this blog is all about.

                    • Anybody with an ounce of sense can see the a crucified Santa is intended to incite by either a trouble making teen or someone with an anti-Santa or anti-Christmas agenda. You have to twist yourself up in knots to see it otherwise. Whether or not it should be illegal it’s certainly unethical and that’s what this blog is all about.

                      If you mean ‘incite’ in the colloquial sense (not the legal sense), I’m 100% with you.

                      This little back and forth was an aside based on my dislike of Jack’s statement “a great candidate for prosecutorial discretion”.

  6. People found the depiction of a plastic skeleton, attached to a cross, and dressed in an imaginary folk hero’s presumed costume offensive? If nothing else, it really puts the whole Park 51 controversy into perspective ..

    Merry Christmas!
    -Neil

    • Merry Christmas Neil, and to all! Okay, in case I have not made it clear enough yet, I suppose now is as good a time as any for “Proam” to “come out:” I am a Christian.

      That said, this account of the goings-on in Loudon County has brought me one Santa-sized belly laugh after another. I truly am enjoying this blog immensely; it’s like Christmas morning almost every day! These “goodies” – food for thought – I can savor, and gorge upon, and not get fatter while feeding my brain. I am getting spoiled by gifts from many, starting with Jack.

      I can see how Karla Marie would be accurate, were she to call the Santa on the cross a political protestation (but of course she did not say that specifically). Heflin’s work is clearly a spoof; his own explanation confirms his intent explicitly. With his crucified Santa, we have mockery: an adapted combination of well-known historical realities, calling out hypocrisies of persons commemorating what they believe about those realities. Heflin is using absurdity to allege or highlight other absurdities. I don’t have a problem with that; it makes me laugh. Makes me do a hypocrisy-check on myself, too. And miss George Carlin. And wish to find my lost copy of the movie starring Steve Martin, “The Jerk.”

      I can agree with Czarnecki only insofar as Heflin’s Santa might be kinda tough to explain to little kids. But she “went rogue” with presumptuousness upon her taking of offense. Her action, based on her confidence in projecting that a child could be traumatized by viewing Kris Krucifingle, remains unjustified. If she’s just picking up litter, fine. But making litter out of something? Not fine.

      For an upcoming Christian holiday, maybe we’ll see Heflin marching outside a confectionery, or along certain aisles of a Wal Mart or dollar-store – holding high a roadkilled rabbit, staked to another cross – and preaching: “He died for your sins! Use bikes, not cars! And kids, eat less candy!” There. I’m even helping the enemy. So crucify me.

  7. Kris Krucifingle… thanks, Proam. You made my day already and I am not even finished my first coffee! I love that. They should put up a sign. Excellent wordplay. I will be repeating that one today, I am sure.

    Jack, you are absolutely right. The county board is full of morons who didn’t spend any time thinking, Heflin is a jerk who pushed an opportunity too far to make a moot point….. like we don’t all know commercialism has killed Santa already. But I agree with those who think Czarnecki is the scariest of them all. I am particularly bummed that this story comes from my home state.

    Ho! Ho! Ho!

    • I feel differently about Czarnecki. Her local government was inept, and someone took advantage of it to help spoil the holidays for a lot of people intentionally. According to the accounts, she made no effort to hide her act, and was willing to accept the consequences. It’s near enough to civil disobedience with a clear purpose to justify respect.

  8. Loudoun County states on their website that “the county is generally not permitted under the First Amendment to regulate the content of the displays that are created by our residents and citizens. ” Yes, they should have known that they were asking for trouble! Another Northern Virginia locality stopped allowing educational displays in libraries because a group put up an exhibit that was clearly “pro-life.”

  9. I completely support civil disobedience, but if a plastic skeleton and cheap santa costume is enough to spoil your holiday then you’re doing it wrong. It’s easy to uphold freedom of speech for those we agree with, a truly free society has to support freedom of speech for those we don’t agree with.

    • The County is not obligated to provide a platform for people who only want to upset people. Freedom of speech is a requirement of the government, not of individuals. We can and do yell “Shut up!” to someone whose speech is offensive, hateful or cruel. A skeleton on the cross says “I hate Christmas, and want to make it unpleasant for anyone who feels otherwise.” How nice. The vandals action is also speech—it says, “You’re a royal jerk, and we hate your stupid display.”

      • The County is not obligated to provide a platform for people who only want to upset people.

        Of course not, but nobody has claimed they were.

        We can and do yell “Shut up!” to someone whose speech is offensive, hateful or cruel

        Maybe the fascists do, but us sane people say “You’re wrong because of X, Y, and Z” and then tell them they are offensive, hateful, or cruel.

        A skeleton on the cross says “I hate Christmas, and want to make it unpleasant for anyone who feels otherwise.”

        I think it actually says “I hate the commercialization of Christmas, and I want everyone to feel bad for their complicity”. Still stupid.

        The vandals action is also speech—it says, “You’re a royal jerk, and we hate your stupid display.”

        The vandal’s action is also vandalism. Murder can be speech, but it’s not protected when it’s murder.

      • So if I don’t like your driving, Freedom of speech covers me if I decide to key the words, “use a turn signal” on your hood. No!!!! Of course not. Vandalism is not protected speech.

        • Do people like you actually read posts before you attack them? Show me where I wrote that the vandalism was protected speech. Why didn’t you just write about your favorite ice cream flavor…that would be as germane to the article.

          I encourage criticism, but if you are too lazy to read the post and just want to make random comments that have nothing to do what was written, you’re wasting my time and everyone else’s.

          • Marty was fine in that post. Your quote: The vandals action is also speech—it says, “You’re a royal jerk, and we hate your stupid display.”

            • Bad tgt! You pulled that quote out of context and suggested, deceitfully, that it was intended to defend the vandalism. Instead, I used that example only to show that protected speech could still be unethical and wrong—like the gratuitously offensive Santa skeleton.. here may be protected speech content in a vandalous act, but it’s still destruction of property. I did NOT approve of the conduct, and Marty’s comment suggests otherwise. She was wrong to destroy the exhibit.

              Exploding a government building is rather eloquent speech, and if could be done without killing people or destroying property, it would be protected. In vandalism, however, the destruction trumps the content. Marty misrepresented my post, and you misrepresented my comment.

              • Wait, wait, wait, so you’re vandalism is speech, but not protected speech? If that’s true, then it looks like that comment was trying to say that the skeleton cross was not protected speech. Can you explain what the actual intent and meaning of that comment are?

  10. Message to the editor, Christmas might be a Christian/Secular/Pagan holiday, but every major religion has a holiday during the Winter solstice. And all non-Christians are doing are trying to get the same rights Christians get. I didn’t know giving people EQUAL RIGHTS was a bad thing. Expecting to be treated better than other groups doesn’t sound very “ethical”

    • Message to the Commenter: mockery and intentional offensiveness isn’t celebration, isn’t respectful to the community, and isn’t ethical. There was only one display that was an attack on the other religious displays there. You don’t have a legitimate argument, or if you do, you haven’t made it.

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