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Atheists edge out Christians in free-speech battle in Loudoun this year

"I don't call it a circus. I call it a free speech forum," said County Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling), a local Christian conservative leader.

Loudoun also offers a local example of an intriguing phenomenon, evident elsewhere in the nation, in which atheists have become increasingly bold and outspoken.

Atheists recently placed a billboard at the New Jersey entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel depicting the Christian Nativity and Star of Bethlehem and declaring, "You KNOW It's a Myth." Roman Catholics hung a competing sign defending the faith at the tunnel's New York entry.

"We're just trying to be out and open, visible and local," said Richard Wingrove, Virginia state director for American Atheists, whose July 20 application locked up the coveted corner location.

Wingrove, a Web designer, said he thought atheists were making more of a splash in Loudoun than elsewhere in our region because of the concentration of scientific and information technology jobs there. "Science and IT draw atheists," he said.

The controversy initially had nothing to do with atheists. It began two years ago when an interfaith organization recommended including Jewish, Muslim and Sikh symbols along with Christian ones in the December displays.

That aroused concern within a volunteer committee responsible for the courthouse grounds, which unexpectedly blocked all displays in 2009. Committee members said that was necessary to protect the trees and shrubs there, and to safeguard the archeological value of a site that has had historical significance since the 1800s or earlier.

Christian groups immediately protested, and some say they thought atheists secretly influenced the committee. Regardless of whether that's true, the public clamor then galvanized the atheists, as well. They insisted that if the creche were reinstated, then nonbelievers' statements needed to be accommodated.

"There was a kind of monopoly on the courthouse lawn for a Nativity scene," said Eric Santiago, an atheist who is putting up the "Star Wars"-related sign Saturday. "When it comes to someplace that's public and paid for by tax dollars, there has to be a measure of neutrality."

Santiago has toned down his original plan to put up a poster "depicting the tenets of Jediism." Instead, his sign will read, "May the Force be with our troops this holiday season."

For their part, Christians object that several of the atheists' signs go too far in criticizing religion. One up now says, "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

"They have a right to have their displays, but not to mock our Christian displays," said Don Phillips, a Knights of Columbus leader who put up the Christmas tree. "It's disrespectful to do so."

The rivalry is sure to continue next year, as the county has already received two applications. The Christians have learned their lesson about procrastination. Dennis Welsh, a local man who has been erecting the principal Nativity scene for 20 years, was the first to apply.

So while there'll doubtless be a message nearby saying it's nothing but a sham, the familiar creche will be back in its traditional corner next year.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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