January 2012 Church & State | People & Events

The grounds of the Loudoun County, Va., courthouse were crowded in December with holiday signs and symbols, including a depiction of an entity known as the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” and a skeleton dressed in a Santa suit.

The county has been the site of an ongoing battle over symbols. For years, a Nativity scene had been erected on the courthouse yard. When church-state protests were raised, county officials attempted in 2009 to ban all displays in the area.

Residents complained about that too, which led the Board of Supervisors to implement a new policy allowing community residents to erect private displays. Ten displays are permitted on a first-come, first-served basis.

The 10 items approved for display in December of 2011 were:

• Two Nativity scenes

• A banner from a group called Loudon Atheists featuring pictures of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and Jesus and asserting that they are all mythical

• A sign promoting church-state separation that reads, “Celebrating our Constitution: Keeping Church and State Separate Since 1787”

• A banner promoting “Reason in the Holiday Season”

• A “Tree of Knowledge”

• A sign displaying a “letter from Jesus”

• A sign depicting the Flying Spaghetti Monster

• A holiday message from the Flying Spaghetti Monster

• A skeleton wearing a Santa suit nailed to a cross

The Flying Spaghetti Monster, a satirical being created by foes of creationism to lampoon biblical literalism, survived scrutiny in Loudoun County, but the Santa suit-wearing skeleton proved to be too much for some. WUSA, a Washington, D.C., television station, reported that a woman approached the display in broad daylight and placed it on the ground.

“It’s offensive,” Mary Czarnecki said. “I just did what I needed to do.”

The skeletal Santa, submitted by Jeff Heflin Jr., was described on his application as a piece of art designed to “depict society’s materialistic obsessions and addictions and how it is killing the peace, joy and kindness that is supposed to be prevalent during the holiday season.”

In other news about holiday symbols on public property:

• Two Religious Right groups briefly displayed a living Nativity scene in front of the Supreme Court in late November. Faith in Action and the Christian Defense Coalition acquired a permit and brought the display to a sidewalk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. It included a camel, a donkey and people posing as Mary, Joseph and the three wise men.

The Revs. Rob Schenck and Patrick Mahoney said they were making a statement about “groups like the ACLU and Americans United [that] are mounting an all-out assault on public expressions of faith.”

Americans United, however, pointed out that it does not oppose privately sponsored displays in public areas where free-speech activities often take place.

• Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island came under fire for repeatedly referring to a “holiday tree” at the statehouse in Providence. The Fox News Channel and some politicians in the state insisted that Chafee should call it a “Christmas tree.”

Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence was among Chafee’s critics. Tobin called Chafee’s terminology “most disheartening and divisive” and said the governor’s action is “an affront to the faith of many citizens.”

State Rep. Doreen Costa, who earlier sponsored a resolution supporting the term “Christmas tree,” said she would erect and decorate her own Christmas tree in her office.

“Political correctness has gone too far,” said Costa, a Republican who represents North Kingstown. “I don’t care what he calls it. Anyone who looks at it knows it’s a Christmas tree. That’s just what it is.”

In response, Chafee has pointed out that Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams, a 17th-century religious liberty pioneer who despised all forms of government-sponsored religion. Williams, who fled Massachusetts because he couldn’t tolerate the Bay colony’s oppressive theocracy, once uttered the memorable line, “Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God.”

Jim Baron, a columnist for the Woonsocket Call, said that the attacks were mainly political in nature.

“I’m sorry, but I get a whiff of politics about all this nonsense,” Baron wrote. “This isn’t about some ‘War on Christmas.’ It is a war on Chafee.”