Va. County Rules Against Controversial Atheist Holiday Displays

In an attempt to quell an avid seasonal debate between religious and atheist residents of Loudoun County in Virginia, officials have ruled that a county-sponsored display may be set up on the local courthouse lawn this upcoming 2012 holiday season, and have also banned all unattended holiday displays.

The local chapter of the American Atheist organization, however, has had their application for an attended holiday display approved as well, and is planning to implement its 'Science on the Lawn" display this Saturday, Nov. 15.

The county-sponsored display, located in the town of Leesburg and approved by Loudoun County's Board of Supervisors last week, will include both secular and religious symbols, including Santa Clause, a decorated Christmas tree, a Nativity scene display, and a menorah.

This is the only unattended display permitted on courthouse grounds; all other displays for the 2012 holiday season must be attended and board-approved individually.

This recent ruling shows an attempt to end a years-long controversy between local atheists and Christians.

Beginning in 2009, the county allowed for ten unattended holiday displays to be presented on the courthouse lawn. The approval of the display depended simply on a first come, first serve basis.

This loose regulation resulted in atheist groups, including the American Atheists, Beltway Atheists and Northern Virginia Atheists, putting up secular displays.

Although the initial atheistic displays were rather temperate, they escalated over the years and began offending residents.

Some highly controversial displays included a mannequin of Luke Skywalker, a poster commemorating the "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster", and a skeleton dressed as Santa Clause hanging from a cross.

After the county's Finance, Government Services and Operations Committee voted in Oct. 2012 to recommend to the Board of Supervisors that only an unattended, county-sponsored displays be allowed on the grounds, committee chairman and Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) said:

"We are not going to have some of the things we've seen in the past, nor are we going to be subject, in my mind, to national ridicule."

"I think this is a good solution for all involved," he added.

For the 2012 holiday season, the American Atheist organization has had one application approved to set up an attended display on the courthouse lawn, which will begin this Saturday.

As Rick Wingrove, the Virginia director for American Atheists, told The Washington Post, the group has received two permits for two months of their display, which will be constantly attended by 15 to 20 people working in shifts.

The display will reportedly be science-themed and include recitations from evolutionist Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species.

Wingrove told The Washington Post that his organization is still undecided on whether it will pursue legal discourse against the county for including religious symbols, such as the nativity scene and menorah, in its holiday display.

Wingrove argues that Loudoun County is giving preferential treatment to religion because its one permitted unattended display includes religious symbols.

Additionally, Wingrove told local that he believes a lighted Christmas tree would have been the best choice on behalf of the county.

"It's beautiful and would step on no one's toes. The constitutional separation of church and state would be honored in letter and spirit," Wingrove told the local radio station.