The historic Loudoun County Court House in Leesburg, Virginia is the site of an ongoing clash over religious displays on the lawn. A Nativity scene has been placed on the lawn at Christmas for years. For a long time, no other signage or displays were permitted.
Two years ago, a resident-led committee made the decision to unilaterally ban all holiday displays on the courthouse lawn. However, after much backlash from the religious community, that decision was reversed a few days later, and the old policy of allowing up to 10 unattended displays on the lawn was reinstated.
In 2010, members of the Atheist community in Loudoun County acquired seven of the 10 available permits for spots on the lawn. Some of the ensuing displays were tongue-in-cheek, such as one of a Jedi and one of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Others were more abrasive, and openly questioned some core tenets of Christianity, like a Santa/Easter Bunny/Jesus comparison. Others were more positive, honoring the Constitution and the separation of church and state.
Over the last year, members of NOVA Atheists and Beltway Atheists have put an upbeat and positive banner on the lawn every month, celebrating persons or events pertaining to science or the separation of church and state.
While it is entirely legal to criticize religion in this country, the monthly signs have never been directly critical of Christianity and only mildly and tangentially critical of religion in general, and only as an issue about the necessary separation of church and state.
The main function of the signs has been to demonstrate that policies about the courthouse lawn were being disingenuous by facilitating religious displays under the banner of free speech.
This has all come to a head following the appearance of a display on the lawn which outraged the local Christian community. The display was a skeleton Santa on a cross. In broad daylight, as one network news camera rolled, a local Leesburg woman went to the courthouse grounds and vandalized the display.
Is there a lesson in all this? Yeah, several:
The secular displays are not a war on Christmas — most of us celebrate the holiday in a fairly conventional way and have never suggested that anyone change that.
The best place for religious displays is on religious property. It is fully protected and no one cares about that. No one’s rights to practice his or her religion are diminished by putting up any kind of religious display on his or her own property.
Religious groups do not have an absolute right to occupy government property. It is by permit only.
Our only aim is to honor and protect the Constitution by making sure that the separation of church and state is rigorously observed.
We want all displays banned from the courthouse lawn so that government property cannot be used for the support, endorsement and advancement of religious purposes. Government should never be in the business of propping up religion.
Read more essays from local faith leaders at On Faith/Local.