Atheists edge out Christians in free-speech battle

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By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010

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.


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