An Atheist’s View of the Courthouse Displays

One of six Atheist-sponsored holiday displays on the Loudoun County, VA court house lawn, Dec. 2010

In Loudoun County VA, in the Fall of 2009, the grounds committee for the Board of Supervisors recommended that the county discontinue the practice of hosting Holiday displays on the Court House lawn. The recommendation was made in order to limit traffic on the lawn in order to protect the lawn and the old trees.
Naturally, the christian community chose to treat this recommendation as an assault on christianity, on christmas, on free speech, and on America.
The Board of Supervisors, rather than displaying an ounce of insight or courage, immediately surrendered their principles and yielded to an outraged contingent of local christianists. But then, fearing a lawsuit, they sought legal advice from the ACLU, who advised them that if they let anyone on the Court House lawn, they had to let everyone on the Court House lawn.
This is when I got involved and put up a display in Dec. ’09. Naturally, the christians were outraged. It seems they really only like their own speech to be free, but, for Atheists, not so much.
The Board of Supervisors revisited the issue in September of 2010 and decided to continue with the displays, but limited to 10 displays, in designated locations, on a first come, first served basis. This year 6 of the 10 spots were taken by atheists.  As you can imagine, the resistance and the controversy ramped up and spilled onto every local TV station, radio talk show, and newspapers – including the Washington Post – where hundreds of comments were posted.
In 2009, Loudoun County Virginia, about 35 miles west of Washington DC, attempted to end the practice of hosting Christmas displays on the Court House lawn. This was done to preserve the historic lawn and protect the old trees. The local christian community chose to respond to the proposal as a vicious attack on christians, the Constitution, free speech and all that is good and pure and patriotic.
As you would expect, Atheists were publicly trashed by some very angry local christians who gleefully reminded us of our looming future of eternal fiery agony. But, there was also a surprising amount of support from some surprising sources, from an energized local atheist community, to a catholic priest, to an ancient and frail woman who may have actually dated Thomas Jefferson and who staunchly stood up for Separation.
Nevertheless, the battle continues in the local papers.  Below is my LTE in response to a pair of local god-believers, writing to the Leesburg (VA) Times Mirror.


 An Atheists View of the Court House Displays

As we have seen during the recent controversy, a lot of people in the county seem to deeply misunderstand the meaning of the Court House displays and of the Constitutional separation of religion from government. This is not surprising – any criticism or pushback against entrenched  religious powers is always reported as a vicious attack against Christians. You can certainly find plenty of energetic debate and criticism of the tenets of Christianity online, but the Court House displays were not about that. They were strictly about Separation and a lot of local disregard for that principle.
A number of local Christians speak of their offense at being forced to look at the displays. They talk about how disrespectful the displays are. They fail to recognize that their own displays on government property are offensive to others, and disrespectful to the Constitution by co-opting government property as a billboard for partisan religious purposes.
The Court House displays are being falsely portrayed as a direct attack on our veterans and that they are especially disrespectful to veterans who fought and died for our rights. To put it charitably, this is a specious charge unaffiliated with the truth. Our veterans and service members are sworn to defend the Constitution, not Christianity. Those who fought and died for our country fought and died for equal rights for every citizen under the law, for equal access and treatment by government regardless of religion. It would be disrespectful to foster a system where the religious are more equal than other citizens.
In reality, the Court House displays had exactly nothing to do with veterans. Those claims, about attacks on veterans, diverge wildly from reality. And, for the record, this atheist is a veteran.
Apparently, a few of the louder voices in the county feel that Free Speech is a little too free. It’s fine for them but not for others. Last year, everyone thought it was an appropriate exercise in free speech to permit all groups to put displays on the lawn. Now that the atheist community is enthusiastically participating in this exercise, a lot of people think that maybe there should be some limits on free speech so that no one, meaning themselves, has to suffer any offense.  Free speech is all well and good but no one should be allowed to “disrespect” Christianity.
Those who think that way have to come to terms with a few hard truths. First, there is no Constitutional right to never be offended. Freedom of speech is meaningless if “offensive” views are punishable by law. Fortunately, that is not the case in this country.
Second, Christianity is not exempt from criticism. Nor can respect be commanded. Unlike Iran, there are no blasphemy laws in this country. See the First Amendment.
Third, the rights of Atheists are exactly equal to the rights of Christians. We have a right to protest what we see as an inappropriate and troubling intrusion on government property.  We also have the right to be critical of the Christian displays and to offer a rebuttal to the message the send.
Fourth, one person’s “free exercise” ends where the next person’s begins. No one’s opinions on religion override or supersede the rights of another.
Our  displays are a response to the purposeful and determined imposition of christian symbols on government property. It is worth noting that, besides the two nativity scenes at the Court House, there were two other nativity scenes within three blocks of the Court House. We never mentioned them and did not oppose them in any way. Those were on church property and were of no consequence to us.
When I spoke at the county council meetings, I was extremely careful to not attack any one’s religious beliefs. I did not attack any one’s right to believe or practice their religion, and I did not attack any one’s right to celebrate their holiday traditions as they see fit. Indeed, I encourage everyone to happily celebrate their family holiday traditions. But that implies no special access to government property. Nor is the use of government property an essential element of the christian holiday celebration. The Court House of all of us is not an extended Christian ministry.
Despite our focus on Separation, we were accused of attacking Christians and trying to destroy Christmas. Despite our care to be respectful of the forum and the people present, we were called anti-christian bigots, and were alleged to be without moral values. Indeed it was the religious contingent present who were angry, insulting, dismissive of our rights, untruthful about our motives, and disrespectful of the Council as well as the atheist/secular segment of our society.
County government has for decades provided special privilege and recognition to the Christian community by providing access to government property for religious displays. It was clear favoritism, clear endorsement, and a message that Christianity was a club which received special benefits from government. This is, and always was indefensible in any Constitutional context.
We propose a simple solution. Move all religious displays to religious or private property where there is no question of Constitutionality. When religious displays are set up on church property, every one’s rights are respected, everyone gets to have their “free exercise”, and no one gets offended. Best of all, the troubling aspects of religious intrusion upon government property simply go away.
The privileged location of religious displays on government property  -  and the endorsement that that implies – is inappropriate, legally questionable, and an entirely unnecessary source of friction in an increasingly diverse society. Further, it is offensive to the rapidly growing atheist/secular community, and disrespectful of the Constitution. We again ask the local government to ban all religious displays from government property.
Rick Wingrove

Source: January 5, 2011 – Page A13 


Speak Your Mind