Secular Opponents Of Holiday Displays Get Creative
A skeleton dressed in a Santa Claus costume is part of the holiday displays at the Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg, Va. Many local residents are not pleased with the “Skele-Claus” or other displays by secular activists and atheists.
Nativity scenes have long been a part of holiday displays at city halls and small-town courthouses across the country. This year, some proponents of secularism are finding new ways to protest the time-honored tradition. They’re putting up their own versions of the creche — and causing quite a commotion in places like Leesburg, Va.
For decades, a Nativity scene took center stage at the county courthouse there. But when some residents complained that the tradition violated a separation of church and state, its lawn was opened to numerous public displays. The decision to be more inclusive came after a 1989 Supreme Court ruling, which found a single creche on public property had an “impermissible effect of endorsing religion,” while a menorah and a Christmas tree together merely acknowledged holidays that are often celebrated secularly.
Atheist groups grabbed most of the 10 allotted spaces created by the county’s policy change in 2009, but their holiday displays are sparking more controversy this year than ever before.
There’s also something residents are calling the “Skele-Claus,” which, as the name suggests, is a skeleton dressed as Santa — that’s slung over a cross. The “Skele-Claus” has been torn down so many times that the county sheriff set up a 24-hour surveillance truck to watch over it.
Local news footage shows one vandal pulling the skeleton off of its cross and gingerly pulling its bones apart. When asked why, the middle-aged saboteur said simply, “Because it’s offensive.”
“These people are, as far as I’m concerned, hell-bent on not only banning everything on the lawn … by being as offensive as possible, but they’re basically trying to stamp out religion,” Reid says.
But that’s not the intention at all, according to Rick Wingrove, the director of the Virginia chapter of American Atheists.
He points out that some of the displays put up by atheist groups aren’t at all offensive. One bears the message “Seasons Greetings, Peace, Love, Health and Happiness to All.” They also put up a Christmas tree adorned with tinsel and lights, only instead of ornaments, it’s covered with notes from atheists that say things like, “I can be moral without religion.”
“We’re not attacking Christmas. We’re not attacking Christianity,” Wingrove says of the atheist group he represents. “We’re trying to preserve the constitutional separation between church and state.”