A-weighin’ a manger

I’m no attorney. My family is probably grateful for that, but let it serve as a warning to anyone else — a warning to take any legal analysis herein with a generous grain of salt. (As if anyone who reads my stuff would need such a warning.)

Nor am I a constitutional scholar. I haven’t studied the Constitution in great length, although I have read it a couple of times and even thought about it the second time. I thought especially hard about the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment is a marvelous, mysterious work — subject to a great deal of interpretation and speculation for something so vital to our country’s well-being. And lately, it’s been the subject of some debate in my old stomping grounds of Leesburg, Virginia.

The issue began in 2009, when someone, somewhere made some sort of complaint about a nativity scene on the grounds of the Loudoun County Courthouse, in Leesburg. I can’t tell you specific details, because they seem to be lost in the annals of time — only two years’ time, sure, but time, just the same. Which means, the current articles on the subject say things like, “The manger’s constitutionality was questioned in 2009.”

Not only is that terrible writing, it’s also terrible research skills. I know some news sites that have yet to archive anything from 2009, yet nobody can find more details? Seriously, journalists, ask yourselves some questions when you write. Who questioned it? How? In what venue?

I’m sure if I weren’t lazy, I could probably dig up some answers on Google, but it’s just not that important to me. Besides, it’s a lot more fun for me to imagine what the question was; I like to think of some person walking past, doing a double-take at the manger, and saying, “Hey, that can’t be legal, can it?” Ergo, it was questioned, so now the press can say as much. (That scenario makes me feel all giddy inside.)

Maybe the little girl is the questioner in question.

Whatever the case, someone questioned the manger’s constitutionality, and the Courthouse Facilities and Grounds Committee reacted by prohibiting citizens from placing any holiday displays on the grounds. Leesburg apparently being devoid of decorations anywhere else, people were outraged at the decision to keep them off Courthouse Square.

This in turn caused the county government to have to react a second time, enacting a new rule to allow 10 holiday displays from citizens on the Courthouse grounds. Displays would be granted by application on a first-come, first-served basis.

The decision brought on an early slew of applications from local atheists, who apparently were so offended by the presence of a manger scene that they felt compelled to submit more tasteful displays — such as a crucified skeleton dressed as Santa Claus, and a sign depicting Jesus flanked by Santa and the Easter Bunny, referring to all of them as myths. Take that, kiddies!

I have nothing against atheists, not in a general sense, anyway. People are welcome to believe as they will, as long as they don’t try to force their beliefs on the rest of us. I take issue with specific individuals of any belief who do things out of malice or spite.

The new ruling gave Loudoun denizens an opportunity to display many types of beliefs — and to possibly engage in some meaningful dialogue about faith, the First Amendment, and common ground. But if someone uses such an opportunity for shock value and/or to mock others’ beliefs, then that someone is obviously not interested in finding common ground. In fact, that someone is probably most interested in just being a douchebag.

Please note the use of the word “if” in that last paragraph. Douchebaggery is defined by intent — and that’s what I really want to talk about. But first, a little backgrounder…

There’s been a bit of controversy during the weeks that have passed since a local artist put up the skeletal Santa display. The artist is Jeff Heflin Jr., a high-schooler and Christian, whose application described the display 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.” His mother, Jenelle Embrey, is a member of NOVA Atheists; apparently, she submitted the application for him.

Soon after Heflin put his display up, an offended citizen illegally pulled it down and left the pieces on the lawn. Later, the skull went missing. What was left in its place was something akin to a powder keg of holiday cheer.

So there’s the background. Or perhaps I should call it “foreground,” as we have to look further back in order to talk about intent. There’s no way to accurately know a person’s true intent, but their own words at least provide clues.

According to one story, here’s what Embrey wrote to the County: “[A]fter my son watched a show last week on how the materialistic addictions of today’s society are killing the santa spirit, he did some research and found a display by an artist in Canada that he would like to take a shot at with something very similar. At first I discouraged it but upon discussion, I realize he is legal now and therefore has a right to his own display.”

I’m not sure when she sent that email (the story doesn’t say), but on Dec. 21 of last year, here’s what she posted under a photo in a NOVA Atheists Meetup gallery: “In surfing the net, I may have found a potential idea for my next year’s display… An artist named Jimmy W. in BC Canada, made this Santa effigy representative of society’s growing appetite for consumer goods.”

Anyone else notice a disconnect between her two statements? So where is she most likely to show her true intent — in public, or in a forum of friends?

On Jan. 4, Embrey posted the following on the Info page of the same Meetup: “how ’bout that letter to the editor in this week’s leesburg today dated 12/31. states our displays were tasteless, irreverent, irrelevant, obnoxious… goes on to state that some purposefully mocked and insulted others’ beliefs. it seriously requests that the courthouse not allow words next year but only displays (and of course gives the manger as a perfectly acceptable example). fine by me. i am picturing my son’s santa cross on that wordless lawn now! his ap is already in so bring it! lol.”

Another NOVA Atheists member replied: “Hmm, sounds like a challenge…
I thought up these off the top of my head:
1. Change Jedi sign to Jedi manger scene with Yoda as baby.
2. Mannequin of Jesus and Santa with a big equals sign between them.
3. In the spot next to or behind Christian manger scene, several historical figures giving it the finger or alternatively mooning it.
4. Thumb’s up Jesus statue from the ‘Dogma’ movie, donned with gold ‘$’ necklace and armload of shopping bags”

I’ll leave it to you to judge the intent there. Also, check out the other photos in that gallery; here’s a slideshow. I don’t want to get into a full-fledged analysis of every banner they put up, last year or this year. It’s late, I’m tired, and I’ve already posted too much about religion this week.

All I want to say is: Anyone who wants to put a display on a courthouse lawn, please examine your motives first. Look inside yourself, and be honest. Are you trying to proselytize? To ridicule? If so, you’re a douchebag.

Atheists, does displaying a manger really equate to making a law respecting an establishment of religion? Does a single display really violate the separation of church and state?

Christians, is it that important to you to have a manger on courthouse grounds? Do you really think it belongs there, and that you should have sole rights to put up a display on government property?

I don’t have the answers, but I believe both sides are being unreasonable. It reminds me of the ending to a movie that I’m ashamed to admit I’ve watched — “Guarding Tess.” If I haven’t already lost credibility, now I’m going to quote Nicolas Cage.

In the movie, Cage plays Doug, a secret service agent assigned to guard Tess, a cantankerous and stubborn widowed First Lady. After Doug rescues Tess from near death, she finds a new respect for him and he grows a backbone while she recuperates in the hospital. After Tess is discharged and is about to see the public again, an orderly asks her to sit in a wheelchair, citing hospital regulations for patients exiting the hospital. Tess disagrees on principle, not needing assistance and disliking regulations for their own sake. The two argue hotly until Doug whistles for their attention, looks at the orderly, and asks, “The regulations aren’t really that sacred, are they?” before turning back to Tess to say, “And Tess? Get in the goddamn chair.”

To the quarreling Atheists and Christians in Loudoun County, I’d like to say: One of you should lighten up on your regulations, but the other should get in the chair, just the same.

To the press up there, I’d like to say: A non-passive voice should be used. (And learn to spell “Loudoun” while you’re at it.)

To myself, I’d like to say: Stop posting about religion and politics, at least for the rest of the holiday season.

To everyone, I’d like Spongebob to say: Don’t be a douchebag; it’s Christmas.

And thusly, I settle my head for a long winter’s nap.

About Dan Bain

Dan is an award-winning humorist, features writer, emcee and entertainer from Raleigh, NC. His collection of humor essays, A Nay for Effort, has earned him fans from one end of his couch to the other. Why not join them and buy one? (You won't have to sit on his couch.) Dan will donate 10 percent of the book's proceeds to education. You can check it out at www.danbain.net; thanks!
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6 Responses to A-weighin’ a manger

  1. critters and crayons says:

    Dan- Funny you posted on this- My mother was just telling me about the controversy the other day in Leesburg. And, I made a note that I needed to google what was happening because it seemed like interesting blog material. Now, I know what’s going on. Thanks- Definitely sounds like an agenda at work- and it’s probably the best idea to do what that Nobel Peace prize winning mathematician from “A Brilliant Mind” devised for economic relations- and have everyone just walk away. Put up a Christmas Tree and call it good.

    • Dan Bain says:

      Please do blog about it, Tricia. At the very least, read some more articles about this — my blog and the few links I posted don’t give nearly the level of detail required. There’s been so much going on up there, I was overwhelmed. Merry Christmas!

    • Dan Bain says:

      P.S. The timestamp on your comment says “2:14 am” — was that your time or mine? I thought I was the only one lurking on the blogosphere that late; thanks for being such a dedicated commenter!

  2. Terri T. says:

    Thanks Dan, for another great article. I like “Doug’s” way of thinking.

    Merry Christmas! Celebrate it in the way that makes your family happy – whiners be danged!

  3. In Athens, TX – a very very tiny east Texas town, someone from out of state sent a letter saying to take down the manger scene or face a lawsuit. Lawsuit? This town is incredibly small – so why pick on it? It is meaningful to this community. Publicity is all I can think. And meanness. It seems more and more December is turning to the season of meanness. No more tolerance – no longer agreeing to disagree and still be friends. People who live around here realize how diverse communities are – and we all enjoy celebrating everything – any excuse for a party. Ya’ just want to say, grow up – You do your thing and let me do mine – and come on let’s go watch the Hanukkah car parade – as always, all are welcome.
    Note: that parade was a couple of days ago in Houston – the annual dress up the cars in Hanukah theme, blare Hanukah music (ooo that’s in the public airway – is that offensive to some? lawsuit?), and lead the way to the temple religious celebration.
    Everybody dance. (and lighten up)

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