Loudoun's annual church-state separation battle overshadows holiday parade

In Leesburg, Virginia an unwelcome Christmastime tradition has once again turned into a holiday battle royale pitting Loudoun County vs. atheists.

The town’s annual holiday parade put the annual controversy on center stage. Just feet from the parade route a large display on atheism was set up on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds for all parade-goers to see.

For years this has been a tense turf fight. The county this year displayed a nativity scene and now a menorah – both on government property at the courthouse.

But local atheists say that’s unconstitutional and are fighting to have a permanent holiday display of their own.

Rick Wingrove, Capital Area Director for the American Atheists, said today it is not only a freedom of speech issue but mostly a separation of church and state issue that he’s been fighting with the county on for years.

“We are standing up for separation of church and state. For decades they’ve had a Christian nativity scene on the lawn here and we think that’s constitutionally inappropriate,” Wingrove said, “We feel like anytime there is a religious display on the lawn here, it is an essentially a government endorsement.”

Wingrove, along with other area atheists applied for and received a permit to have a manned display this year. They point out that the other religious displays – the Christian nativity scene and the Jewish menorah – are allowed to be on the lawn for the whole month unmanned.

For years the town has been besieged by controversy and has tried each year to tweak plans to decrease the drama. Last year, the displays turned into more of a spectacle when the displays were open to anyone, resulting in the crucifixion of a skeleton in a Santa costume on the courthouse lawn.

This year, in an attempt to calm the controversy, the board of supervisors recently approved a county-sponsored Christmas display which included the nativity scene and menorah – but banned any other unattended religious displays on the property.

The change did little to stop the atheists group from applying for a temporary permit to have a manned display.

And this year the controversy also became very personal. County Supervisor Ken Reid recently called the local atheists “terrorists” and “fanatics.”

He has since apologized for the comments but today many in the community brought up this comment as an example of what they don’t want to see happen in their town. Many said another year of negative attention for the town – all over the holiday displays at the courthouse – is bad for the town’s outlook and reputation.

“It’s unfortunate that that display is what we’re becoming known for,” Duane Hart of Leesburg said today.

But Hart added that he’s in support of there only being a Christian display at the courthouse, noting that the atheism display can be confusing for children.

“As a parent it makes it a little bit more difficult because I have to have conversations with my children that they’re not necessarily ready to have,” he said, “Personally I take a more traditional view of Christmas. So I’d prefer you know one town display.”

Others, like Shannon Schriender said that she is in support of the right for atheists to display on the courthouse lawn.

“I think it’s great to see both ends of the spectrum represented,” Schriender said, “I don’t understand what the battle is? As I said I’m for everybody, live and let live.”

But beyond the differences in opinion on this issue one thing that most Leesburg residents could agree on is that they just want this issue to be solved so that controversy doesn’t take attention away from the holiday again next year.

“I really do wish it would get solved,” Jennifer Earnhart, a lifelong resident of Leesburg said today, “I wish people could focus on the season and be happy for whatever it is they have and they’re celebrating.”