Atheists plan attended holiday display in Leesburg

November 14, 2012

With the arrival of the holiday season, Loudoun County officials are hoping to avoid the recurrence of a recent annual tradition: an escalating dispute over the installation of unattended seasonal displays on the grounds of the historic courthouse grounds in Leesburg.

In recent years, Loudoun has received increasing attention over the controversy surrounding holiday displays in Leesburg, where long-established displays including a Nativity scene and a Christmas tree have shared space with far less traditional arrangements, such as atheist testimonials, a banner tribute to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and a skeleton dressed as Santa Claus.

Last week, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors voted to approve a county-sponsored display and implement a permanent ban on any other unattended arrangements on the property. The goal, supervisors said, was to avoid turning another holiday season into a national spectacle.

Although unattended displays on the courthouse grounds have been banned, attended displays are permitted, and atheists say they do not intend to surrender the debate quietly.

On Saturday, local members of American Atheists and supporters are planning to set up an attended display on the courthouse grounds, said Rick Wingrove, the group’s Virginia director.

Wingrove said the atheists submitted two permits for attended display this month and next, and plan to begin Saturday morning with recitations of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and readings from the work of author and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

“We’ll be answering questions and handing out literature, as well,” Wingrove said.

The display, including a canopy and a podium, will be attended by at least two people at a time and possibly up to four or five, Wingrove said. About 15 to 20 people plan to participate in the display in the coming weeks in rotating shifts, he said, primarily on the weekends.

“We may also pick up a [public address] system, not to blast but just to amplify so we can be heard as we participate in democracy,” he said.

At the board’s Nov. 7 meeting, Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) said the county had received two applications for attended displays, which have been approved. Buona said he thinks the county-sponsored display would be an effective way to defuse the tensions of recent holiday seasons.

“This is something we’ve talked an awful long time about,” he said of the government-
funded display. “We all know the history of this. What you’re seeing today is a result of that.”

The debate over the displays has deepened since it began in November 2009, when a resident-led committee sought to institute a ban on unattended displays on the courthouse grounds. Residents were distraught when a Rotary Club application to place a traditional Christmas tree on the property was denied.

Supervisors responded to the ensuing outrage by establishing a policy allowing up to 10 groups to display arrangements on the courthouse grounds at once, on a first-come, first-served basis. But the policy, upheld by the board again in September 2010, brought new attention to the displays on the property. Atheists and other groups began to participate, triggering resentment among residents who did not like the inclusion of less traditional elements.

The controversy expanded to a national stage last year after a crucified skeleton Santa was set up on the grounds and quickly torn down by a passerby who said the display was potentially traumatic to children.

The board voted in July to pursue the development of a county-funded display as a means to end the ongoing conflict. But atheist groups cautioned that the county could face a lawsuit if officials included religious elements in its display.

The county-sponsored display approved last week has secular and religious symbols, including a decorated tree, a Nativity display, a menorah and a Santa Claus with reindeer and sleigh. The arrangement will cost $3,400, county records show.

The board approved the display in a 6-2-1 vote, with Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) absent and Vice Chairman Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) and Supervisor Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run) opposed.

Clarke and Williams have said that they do not think the government should permit displays on the property.

Williams has also voiced concern that the decision to implement a county-sponsored display might only further the controversy and invite litigation.

Wingrove said his group was considering the possibility of legal action against the county but had not made a decision. The discussions were continuing, he said, as the group prepared to begin their readings of Darwin and Harris outside the courthouse.

“If religion is okay on government property, science certainly is,” he said.

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