Loudoun’s seasonal display controversy winds down, for now

As Christmas fast approaches, another season of spirited debate over holiday displays on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds seems to be winding down.

On Dec. 8, during the annual holiday parade and festival in downtown Leesburg, a group of atheists set up an attended display on the courthouse grounds, directly along the parade route. Members hoisted a sign declaring, “Peace, love, health and happiness to all,” and spoke to passersby about the need for the separation of church and state.

Rick Wingrove, Virginia director of American Atheists, said the reaction to their presence was mixed but respectful.

“I think some people were unhappy that we were there, but generally, they acted very civilized,” he said. “And we also got a lot of support from people.”

Loudoun leaders voted this year to approve a county-funded holiday arrangement on the courthouse lawn and implemented a ban on unattended displays, in an effort to end the seasonal controversy of recent years, when emotions have been stirred over the placement of holiday displays on the property.

The board did not prohibit attended displays, and local atheists have continued to make their presence known in recent weeks, occasionally setting up a tent and podium on the property, handing out information to passing pedestrians and reading aloud from the works of Charles Darwin.

The display controversy has put Loudoun in a national spotlight in recent years, as an increasingly eclectic collection of seasonal displays appeared outside the courthouse.

Accustomed to the decades-long displays of traditional arrangements — such as a Nativity scene and a Christmas tree — many residents were not pleased by the appearance of displays displaying messages from “Star Wars” Jedi groups or from the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

Others, including local atheist groups, have maintained that there should no religious symbols on the courthouse grounds. They have said that a decorated tree is fine but that there should not be a Nativity scene on public property.

“There really is a complete misunderstanding about what we’re trying to do,” Wingrove said, emphasizing that the group is not trying to wage a “war on Christmas.”

“We’ve been very clear all along that we have not attacked Christmas in any way. We have never asked anyone to stop doing Christmas,” he said. “But we believe in separation of church and state.”

Wingrove said that his group is authorized to put up its attended display through Dec. 29 but that it has no plans to set up the display on the courthouse property again this season.

“We do have the option, but nothing firm is planned,” he said.

Although the drama appears to be subsiding for this year, he said that atheists are talking with other religious groups in the area to see whether they can establish broader support for their cause.

“We’d like to join ranks to urge the board to reconsider this. We’d like them to see a more unified group opposing it,” he said.

Those efforts will probably have to wait for next year, Wingrove said.

“One thing I think [supervisors have] learned out of this [is that] they thought this solution they came up with was going to settle this once and for all,” he said.

“But it did anything but settle it once and for all.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.

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