Has the Grinch added something to the water in Loudoun County? What else explains the Board of Supervisors' otherwise inexplicable attempt to reverse its own unanimous vote last December allowing traditional holiday displays at the county courthouse in Leesburg?

This is the second time in six months that the Board of Supervisors is addressing what should be an automatic protection of the First Amendment right of free speech in the public square, even if that speech takes the form of a Nativity creche.

Ten years ago, Loudoun supervisors attempted to impose a curfew on all residential lighting after 9 p.m., which many outraged residents viewed as a war on their Christmas lights. After Santa Claus appeared at a July hearing, the idea was sent to the Planning Commission and never heard from again.

This time, it's the traditional holiday displays during Christmas and Hanukkah that were banned last November by the Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee, a board-appointed citizens group, because the courthouse lawn was supposedly getting too "messy." In December, in response to angry public protests, the board voted 9-0 to continue the holiday displays. Six months later, it's considering imposing the ban once again.

Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio, R-Sterling, sees something more sinister at work. "Six attorneys came to the board meeting and echoed what I have been saying: There's a feeling of persecution and overt harassment of Christians in Loudoun County," he told The Examiner.

Instead of publicly debating what the conservative Republican characterizes as an attempt to "deny Christians their civil rights," Delgaudio's fellow board members put off the messy matter until September. Perhaps they did so because, much to the chagrin of liberals on the board such as Jim Burton, I-Blue Ridge, and Stevens Miller, D-Dulles, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has taken Delgaudio's side in the dispute.

The current policy, which the Leesburg Town Council went on record supporting July 13, allows up to 10 groups access to the outdoor space on a first-come basis. Delgaudio and the ACLU agree on little else, but came to the same conclusion last year that the courthouse forum must remain open to anyone of any religion -- or none -- who follows the basic rules.

In a July 19 letter opposing the ban on holiday displays, ACLU Executive Director Kent Willis noted that "our founding fathers, Congress, the courts and most historians see the right to use public space to express social, political and religious views as the quintessential embodiment of the American spirit."

And although "Supreme Court cases defining and shaping the First Amendment are filled with language recognizing the discomfort that freedom of expression can evoke," he pointed out, in public forums "the government may not discriminate based on the viewpoint of the message."

The other message -- whether it be in the form of the Madonna and Child, a menorah, or any other religious symbol -- is that Americans are free to practice and proclaim their faith in public, no matter how many other people object.

But now Delgaudio's fellow supervisors are supremely uncomfortable with the "messy" and hard-to-control "free for all" that resulted from their previous correct decision to protect free speech. Now they look not only like hypocritical, weak-kneed, spineless flip-floppers, but they've brought both the far right and the far left together in a righteous cause -- against them.

They should have quit while they were ahead.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.