This year, Loudoun County leaders hoped to avoid yet another season of controversy and media attention over the placement of holiday displays on the Leesburg courthouse grounds.
But the focus on Loudoun's infamous annual debate has only heightened in recent weeks after local atheists presented readings from Charles Darwin on the public property — and county Supervisor Kenneth D. “Ken” Reid (R-Leesburg) referred to the the group as “terrorists” for their continued opposition to religious displays on the grounds.
The county has hosted an escalating drama as a result of the increasingly eclectic seasonal displays outside the Leesburg courthouse, where traditional arrangements such as a Nativity scene and a decorated Christmas tree have been joined in recent years by displays honoring atheism, Jediism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
With the goal to end the resulting uproar, the Board of Supervisors voted this year to approve a county-funded holiday arrangement and ban all other unattended displays.
But attended displays are still permitted under the policy, and an application from a local atheist group was approved. On Nov. 16, the group set up a tent with banners and a podium, and more than a dozen volunteers handed out information to passersby and read from the work of Charles Darwin, according to Rick Wingrove, the Virginia director of American Atheists.
The response to their presentation was more favorable than expected, Wingrove said — at least from passing drivers and pedestrians in downtown Leesburg.
But the rhetoric surrounding the sensitive issue reached a new pitch Monday when Reid was quoted referring to the atheists as “terrorists” in an article in The Washington Times.
“None of the religious organizations in the county have had any problem with what we’re doing,” Reid said in the Nov. 26 story. “It’s strictly this group of terrorists. They’re fanatics who basically want to stamp out religion in all public life and property.”
The comment drew sharp condemnation from local Democrats and atheists.
On Tuesday, Evan Macbeth, Chairman of the Loudoun County Democratic Committee, said the group strongly objected to the use of the word “terrorist” to describe any peaceful protester.
“In a post-9/11 world, ‘terrorist’ is among the most incendiary terms one can use,” Macbeth said in the statement. “To use it in a casual manner, to describe a fellow citizen who disagrees with you on matters of politics or public policy, is irresponsible and offensive.”
Reid said Wednesday that he regretted using the word “terrorists” and apologized to those who may have been offended.
“My use of the word ‘terrorist’ was a poor choice of words and the Washington Times did not tell it in full context,” Reid said in an e-mail. “My comments in the Times were directed specifically at the atheist groups that have been relentlessly pursuing their goal to remove all religious holiday symbols from the courthouse lawn, not ALL atheists or non-believers.”
As for the attended display that local atheists staged on the courthouse grounds, Reid said it was “fine under our County rules” and the board had no plans to intervene.
Reid questioned the response of local Democrats and atheists, whom he said had leapt at the chance to turn his comment into political fodder.
“It is regrettable that [Evan Macbeth] and the Loudoun County Democratic Committee are ... choosing to use this incident to make political hay,” Reid said.
Reid also noted that, as a result of the publicity surrounding his comment, he had received a barrage of e-mails from citizens who used profane and explicit language to denounce his statements.
The supervisor said he was disappointed that local Democrats and atheists seemed unwilling to accept his apology.
“I would ask Macbeth and Wingrove if they are willing to put this behind us,” he said.
But in an official statement Wednesday, the American Atheists said they were unimpressed by Reid’s “half-hearted apology.”
“Supervisor Reid’s categorization of law-abiding U.S. atheists as terrorists is appalling and completely unacceptable,” the statement said.
Wingrove said the group planned to continue their efforts — and their second display is likely to get more attention: Wingrove said the atheists plan to recite Darwin and hand out literature again Dec. 8, during the highly attended Leesburg holiday parade.
“We will literally be just feet away from the sidewalk where the parade will take place,” Wingrove said.
The group does not aim to cause a disturbance but simply wants to make a point through their presence, he said.
“We have as much right to be on the lawn as the religious displays do, in spite of how hard they’ve made it for us,” he said. “We’re going to continue to exercise our freedom of speech.”