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What an Open Forum Looks Like

Every year there are battles over religious displays on public property and the general rule is that a local government can’t allow a religious display while turning down all other religious or non-religious displays. Leesburg, Virginia has a genuinely open public forum where the first ten displays submitted get put on display on the grounds of the county courthouse. And here are those ten displays this year:

The 10 applications that have been submitted and accepted for display are as follows, in chronological order as received:

• A crèche, or nativity scene, from Leesburg resident Dennis Welsh.

• A sign showing a picture of the Easter Bunny, Santa and Jesus Christ with text that states, “Myths for Young and Old,” a quote from Thomas Edison and information about the Loudoun Atheists, submitted by Leesburg resident Emmert Elsea.

• A banner with the text “Celebrating our Constitution” and language about keeping church and state separate, submitted by Leesburg resident Rick Wingrove. The banner comes from American Atheists and NOVA Atheists.

• A banner promoting “reason in the holiday season,” submitted by Lansdowne resident Larry Mendoza.

• A holiday display that will either be a Tree of Knowledge or a holiday message sign, from Sterling resident Lydia Rice.

• A sign displaying a letter from Jesus, submitted by Middleburg resident Jenelle Embrey.

• A piece of art work depicting Santa on a cross to “depict society’s materialistic obsessions and addictions and how it is killing the peace, love, joy and kindness that is supposed to be prevalent during the holiday season,” submitted by Middleburg resident Jeff Heflin Jr.

• A sign about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, submitted by Leesburg resident Ken Levesque.

• Another sign from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, this one with a holiday message, submitted by Matthew Courtney of Reston.

• A nativity scene, submitted by the Rev. Jack Grubbs from the Potomac Falls Anglican Church.

I like that. That’s what an open forum is all about, genuine diversity of opinion where the government is not endorsing any message.

Comments

  1. Phillip IV says

    I like that. That’s what an open forum is all about

    That’s true, but from the viewpoint of encouraging other communities to follow the open forum approach for their holiday displays, the result isn’t terribly hopeful. It’ll be interesting to see what the finished result is going to look like, but the description makes it appear as some kind of shouting match, with only Christians and Secularists participating.

  2. Gregory says

    A letter from Jesus? REALLY? And this holy relic is going on public display in Leesburg, Virginia and not Rome or Jerusalem? Wow. And all this time, I figured that Christ was illiterate; you would think He could have written his own autobiography and dealt with the conflicts that his unauthorized biographies have between them.

    I do like that more than half of the displays are secular in nature. It makes me somewhat more hopeful for the future.

  3. timberwoof says

    “The grounds of the Loudoun County Courthouse are either going to be entertaining, meaningful, abhorrent or even an embarrassment this holiday season”

    Hm. So people only get to display stuff like that during the officially designated Judeo-Christian holiday season. I’ll have to think about that.

  4. Larry says

    A letter from Jesus? REALLY?

    And not only that, the letter was in English!!! Jesus was writing letters in a language that wasn’t created for 1000 years using an American dialect that was 1000 years after that!

    How special is that?

  5. abb3w says

    As happens, it turns out one of the spaces may be unavailable at the recommendation of the county arborist, which means the last-in from Potomac Falls Anglican Church may be out-of-luck this year.

    Oh, and apparently Skelly Claus was torn down while a county sheriff’s deputy reportedly watched and did nothing.

    There’s also what seems some phenomenally deep stupid coming from Councilman and Supervisor-elect Ken Reid, who is “utterly outraged” to “see a beloved symbol of the holidays crucified”. Is he saying that Jesus is not a symbol of the holidays, or that the Christian church’s use of crucifixes are outrageously offensive?

  6. abb3w says

    BTW, the lady who tore it down is reportedly one Mary Zenecki.

    @1, Phillip IV:

    It’ll be interesting to see what the finished result is going to look like, but the description makes it appear as some kind of shouting match, with only Christians and Secularists participating.

    I admit, I’m disappointed none of the local Jews applied to put up a menorah.

  7. John Hinkle says

    Oh boy, wait until the organizations with “Family” in their name, and law firms with “Liberty” or “Moore” in their names, find out about this. It’ll be all over radio and TV stations with “Fox” or “700″ in their name. Then there’ll be a huge push to raise things with “cash” in their name.

  8. Aquaria says

    The christers are saying they’re ever-so-offended.

    Well, I find their emo scumbag deity nailed to a tree offensive. I find this bigoted piece of shit thinking that she can vandalize someone else’s property offensive.

    But I’m wiling to let the law handle this scumbag within the law. That’s because I don’t have the right not to be offended.

    These idiots never get the idea that they don’t have the right, either. They need to grow the fuck up, or get the fuck out. I’m sick of their endless whining and sniveling.

  9. Michael Heath says

    Some additional reportage on this would be appreciated:

    The display [crucified Santa] was defaced. A woman took it down as a deputy watched, according to the Virginia Chapter of American Atheists.

  10. lofgren says

    Not sure how you can call this “real diversity.” We’ve got pro-Christian, anti-Christian, anti-consumerism, and pro-reason, and the difference between pro-reason and anti-Christian in this context is basically just a matter of emphasis. I would not call this an impressive display of the diversity of American feelings towards the holiday season. I also find it a little disappointing that several of the displays look like protests. The tree of knowledge should have been sufficient to express the atheist/skeptic position on the holidays. How about letting some other holiday traditions get a word in edgewise? Not that I blame the atheists for that. The whole approach sounds uncoordinated and poorly planned.

    When I am mayor we’ll just stick to some inoffensive holiday lights, and maybe a tree that everybody will be welcome to place an ornament on that portrays their traditions or feelings towards the holiday season. (Trees are sufficiently divorced from their pagan roots to be non-denominational in this day and age, right?) Ten unrelated displays on a first-come-first-serve basis is just not enough to get a real feel for the breadth of feelings that the season engenders.

  11. Jordan Genso says

    I am not very comfortable with this idea of letting the first ten displays get the space. It won’t be long before the majority are able to effectively mobilize enough members to make sure they are the first ten, at which point everyone else is silenced. I would be equally upset if the non-Christians organized so well to guarantee they were the first ten, so that none of the displays represented Christian sentiments.

    With that said though, I’m not currently able to think of a more just system that would ensure that multiple views are able to be expressed. So maybe this is the best option available.

  12. RW Ahrens says

    I live in Maryland, and know Emmert, he’s been to some of my discussion groups in the last year.

    The 2009 Christmas season was the most fun, from a secular perspective, since Emmert stole the march on the christians, and got his display approved and up before the local christian groups had a clue. They were so shocked, that for the 2010 season, they had someone in line at the county clerk’s office the day that applications were open to be sure they got a slot!

    I give Emmert a lot of credit, he’s worked tirelessly in a very religious area to open that forum up to non-christian messages. I’m glad to see that he is still putting up his holiday messages.

  13. eric says

    @18: With that said though, I’m not currently able to think of a more just system that would ensure that multiple views are able to be expressed.

    You may be right about there being no better legal solution. But lofgren already offered the non-legal one: atheists should take the high road, coordinate their efforts, put in one display, and not use this freedom to try and monopolize the marketplace space provided. Just because some other group tries to monopolize the display area and shut out other messages doesn’t mean you have to retaliate in kind.

    Heck, if you really want diversity, do grassroots coordination with other traditions to make sure it happens. Don’t just stand in line with your tree of knowledge application, call your buddy up the day before and remind him to bring his menorah application down at the same time.

  14. Brandon says

    While I like the idea of diverse displays, the bulk of these seem just plain stupid to me. The whole FSM thing is pretty played out; it started out as clever, and it’s still kind of funny, but it seems like a weird thing to display. I’d rather have genuine diversity and positivity than this weird sort of clash that the Leesburg display’s going to wind up being. I’m with Eric completely in #21 – one good, strong, positive atheist/secular display would cut it. By the same token, one nativity scene should cut it on that end too.

  15. raven says

    I’m rather disappointed that the Wiccans and Pagans didn’t put up a display. They have in other places but usually they don’t seem to get around it.

    I suppose the Pagan one would be a decorated tree, some reindeer, some mistletoe, and maybe a snowperson. It was after all, originally a Pagan holiday.

  16. Modusoperandi says

    A sign showing a picture of the Easter Bunny, Santa and Jesus Christ with text that states, ‘Myths for Young and Old,’

    “And a Merry Christmas to you too.” I replied to the asshole.

  17. raven says

    The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster needs to do a nativity scence with all Flying Spaghetti Monsters or associated imagery, whatever that might be. Maybe jesus could be a meatball.

  18. eric says

    Raven: The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster needs to do a nativity scence [sic]…

    My thinking is that there are contexts when ridiculing someone’s arguments can help your audience understand your perspective (like a debate). There are also contexts where ridiculing someone actually dilutes your message and the audience leaves just thinking you’re a dick. I think this is the sort of context where a tree of knowledge or pan-belief display is far more useful than an FSM creche.

    What Christian, raven, is going to see that and go “hmmm, that makes me rethink my beliefs?”

  19. lofgren says

    What Christian, raven, is going to see that and go “hmmm, that makes me rethink my beliefs?”

    Why are you assuming that is the point of the display?

    Sometimes it seems like atheists aren’t allowed to do anything that isn’t intended to proselytize. I’m a little tired of the FSM myself, but it is a little funny and the point is valid. Not everything has to be about our opponents. It’s OK for us to talk to each other in public fora, as well. I guarantee no atheist has ever seen their 25,000th Christmas nativity scene and decided to spontaneously become a Christian, either. Those scenes are not there to persuade atheists, yet nobody thinks that they are inappropriate.

  20. lofgren says

    It’s OK for us to talk to each other in public fora, as well.

    To be clear, I mean that it is OK for atheists to place messages directed at other atheists in a public forum, regardless of what Christians think about it.

  21. stracci says

    Seven of the 10 displays are secular to include the “Letter from Jesus”, which was also destroyed yesterday. While it may seem disjointed there is an agreed upon goal at least within NoVa Atheists: get the Loudoun County gov’t out of the advertizing business and the displays off the lawn. The atheist group posts a sign every month supporting science and reason/separation of church and state.

  22. eric says

    Why are you assuming that [having christians rethink] is the point of the display?

    Because six of the seven clearly do have that purpose. Do you think the two FSM displays are messages to atheists? Or the “Reason in the Holiday Season” sign? How about Santa Cross? The constitutional separation of church and state one? Oh I know, maybe the “modern myths” display was atheists talking to each other.

    I respect stracci’s goal. But you can’t seriously believe that these displays are simply atheists celebrating their own traditions witohut any thought to how others may perceive the displays. That’s incredibly naive. How others perceive them is the point of most of them.

  23. raven says

    What Christian, raven, is going to see that and go “hmmm, that makes me rethink my beliefs?”

    (Longer reply eaten by the Flying Cyberspace Monster)

    The main point of a Flying Spaghetti Monster nativity scene is to be fun. Xmas is a holiday, make it a fun one.

    As US xianity chokes to death on its own hate and idiocy, the rising groups have to develop their own sacred traditions.

    My favorite nativity scene is

    1. An all dinosaur nativity scene. This is a must have.

    2. And all cephalopod or all mollusc one.

    3. Whatever you can dream up here.

    There is reportedly an all Zombie one for sale on the net. Each to their own. That just doesn’t seem seasonal enough to me.

  24. raven says

    Scrolling down the thread, I see that several nonXian displays have already been vandalized.

    Predictable. Xianity has been an extremely violent religion. Hitchens: Xianity lost its best defence when it stopped burning people alive at the stake.

    I would hope someone would videotape the vandalism and put it up on Youtube.

    Fundie Xian Rule 1: Fundies never, ever miss a chance to demonstrate their total moral and intellectual bankruptcy. This rule has high predicitve value.

  25. dingojack says

    Eric (#30) – “But you can’t seriously believe that these displays are simply atheists celebrating their own traditions [without] any thought to how others may perceive the displays. That’s incredibly naive. How others perceive them is the point of most of them“.

    Strangely, ‘how others perceive’ never seems to have crossed xtian’s minds as they merrily went about jamming their religiously based kitsch in every available location.
    ‘Don’t like it?’ they say ‘Pfft! You’re just another politically correct, god-hating, moral relativist conducting a secret commie/fascist/islamic/Teh Ghey “War On Christmas”™!’
    ‘Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men’, yeah right!

    Dingo

  26. lofgren says

    Because six of the seven clearly do have that purpose.

    Which has what to do with Raven’s idea?

    Do you think the two FSM displays are messages to atheists?

    The vast majority of the time when I see the FSM invoked, it is more as a message of solidarity to non-believers than any attempt to sway the faith of believers. Naturally I can’t be sure about these displays without seeing them first. I have no doubt that part of their message is directed at believers, a kind of in-your-face “We’re here, get used to it!” message. I highly, highly doubt anybody thinks that the FSM Christmas display will actually be a powerful tool of atheist evangelism. More likely, it’s a wink and a nod to fellow non-believers. “Yes, belief in god is as preposterous as the FSM. You know it. I know it. We all know it.” That’s the message of the FSM that I see most often. I think I can probably count on one hand the number of FSM-themed presentations that were intended to make believers to doubt their faith.

    But you can’t seriously believe that these displays are simply atheists celebrating their own traditions witohut any thought to how others may perceive the displays.

    I never said that. I said that they are not intended to sway believers. The young and old myths display was probably meant to encourage believers to think about what Jesus has in common with Santa, but I don’t see any reason to think that the constitution display had that purpose. It sounds like its intent was to celebrate the separation of church and state, which has nothing to do with changing other people’s religion. The santa cross is about consumerism, not any particular religious belief. If anything, the message reads to me that we should remember Christ’s role in Christmas rather than elevating Santa’s and all of the conspicuous consumption that character has come to symbolize.

    How others perceive them is the point of most of them.

    Well obviously. If they were not meant to be perceived by others then they would be hidden from view, not mounted on city hall’s lawn. I’m not sure how you are going from that self-evident claim to the assumption that all displays must be intended to make Christians turn into atheists. I suspect they are much more intended as celebrations of the season, or to lend vocal support to doubters who have no yet come to grips with their loss of faith, or, as raven says, for fun. Any of those goals is more than enough to justify an FSM nativity scene, even if it never convinces a single Christian to rethink their faith. Frankly, if you can come up with a diorama that will deconvert Christians, I would be pretty damn impressed. Please get out there and build this miraculous scene, so that we can go about solving the problem of irrational faith once and for all.

  27. eric says

    Lofgren, here’s what you said: Sometimes it seems like atheists aren’t allowed to do anything that isn’t intended to proselytize. I’m a little tired of the FSM myself, but it is a little funny and the point is valid. Not everything has to be about our opponents. It’s OK for us to talk to each other in public fora, as well.

    Now it sounds to me from your last post that you don’t think the five non-FSM ones are “us talking to each other in public fora.” That those five ARE about our opponents. Maybe not in a specific, religious de-conversion sense, but in a more general sense; it is outward communication, not in-group communication. Is that correct?

    If it is, I’m happy to back off my earlier claim that these are all about religious de-conversion and agree with you that most of them are about more general messaging to the theist/Christian community.

  28. stracci says

    @32 Raven:

    http://www.wusa9.com/video/default.aspx?bctid=1311150127001

    Local news as well as the NBC affiliate in DC showed the woman destroying the display. Fox News/Todd Starnes has it incorrect. My understanding, based on information provided by Beltway Atheists, is the creator of the the “Santa Christ” is Christian. His mother is affiliated with the local Atheist organization and created the destroyed “Jesus letter”.

    Clips on HuffPo and MSNBC as well. One shows a Loudoun County Sherriff watching the vandalism and chasing the news crew away.

  29. raven says

    Thanks Stracci. It’s great to know that it was caught on video.

    A holiday display = a few dollars.

    Video of xians behaving badly and violently = priceless

    These displays are twofers. You get some attention by putting them up. The xians look like hate filled, violent morons when they vandalize them.

    Clips on HuffPo and MSNBC as well. One shows a Loudoun County Sherriff watching the vandalism and chasing the news crew away.

    Which the sheriff has no right to do, legally or otherwise. I hope the news people got video of that too.

    IIRC, Loudan county is one of the richest counties in the USA and routinely elects fascists to run the county.

  30. lofgren says

    Now it sounds to me from your last post that you don’t think the five non-FSM ones are “us talking to each other in public fora.”

    No, here’s what happened:

    Raven said that some atheist should do a display with an FSM nativity.

    You said that an FSM nativity would not be an effective conversion tool.

    I said that doesn’t matter, because if the FSM nativity scene is funny to atheists then that would be a perfectly sufficient reason to do it, regardless of whether it had any chance of converting Christians.

    Nobody was talking about the existing displays in that portion of the conversation. I have not seen the displays and I make no claim as to what they are about. I am guessing that the two FSM displays are aimed primarily at other atheists, because that is how I most often see the FSM invoked, as an in-joke bandied amongst skeptics. But that is not relevant to my defense of Raven’s hypothetical display from your irrelevant criticism that it would not turn Christians into atheists all by itself.

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