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

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 8:42 PM

In ancient Rome, the contest was Christians vs. lions. In Loudoun County today, it's Christians vs. atheists.

This year, the atheists came out on top.

Unlike in Rome, neither side ate the other. But the passions still run strong in what's becoming an annual competition each December for 10 precious spots on the lawn of the historic county courthouse in Leesburg, where the rivals get a chance to publicly promote their philosophies.

One side celebrates the birth of Jesus with Nativity scenes and a Christmas tree. The other marks the winter solstice with banners and signs praising reason, denouncing religion as superstition and, in one case, quoting from "Star Wars." (A plan to explicitly endorse the Jedi faith was scrapped on grounds it was too inflammatory.)

Selection is done strictly on a first-come, first-served basis. This year, the atheists grabbed an early lead. They submitted four applications in July, before the Christians realized they were behind and finally put in for a creche in August.

The atheists ended up with six out of 10 positions on the lawn, including the most visible location at King and Market streets. A weather-beaten Nativity scene has filled that spot for at least four decades. This year, it'll be occupied instead by a banner reading, "Celebrating our Constitution: Keeping Church and State Separate since 1787."

When I first heard about this symbolic tug-of-war, I was offended by the indignity of it. Wouldn't a duel between Christmas symbols and atheists' statements spoil the atmosphere in the cozy town that's the seat of government for the nation's richest county?

A visit to Leesburg allayed such worries. Now, I think the status quo is just fine.

The limit on the number of displays, plus a requirement that they be "reasonable in size," means they weren't particularly intrusive.

Moreover, the whole episode offers a rousing example of the continuing power in America of the ideal of free speech - even when the two sides deeply resent each other.

The Christians grumble that the atheists have used the First Amendment to muscle in on a long-standing tradition. The atheists would really like to ban all displays rather than see a plaster infant Jesus on public property.

But with equal access guaranteed, each side stoutly defended the other's right to express its views.

"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).

© 2010 The Washington Post Company