Atheists' holiday displays add controversy to Christmas

Published: Thursday, Dec. 8 2011 9:33 a.m. MST

Songs may proclaim December the "most wonderful time of the year," when "all is calm, all is bright." But Christmas has its own controversy, thanks to some displays that present a different type of holiday message.

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Songs may proclaim December the "most wonderful time of the year," when "all is calm, all is bright." But Christmas has its own controversy, thanks to some displays that present a different type of holiday message.

In New Jersey, the American Atheists have installed a billboard at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel designed to pull "closet atheists" out of church and put them back in their homes to enjoy the holidays.

"We want people to realize that there may be atheists in their family, even if those atheists don't even know they are atheists," American Atheists' president David Silverman told the New York Times.

The black and orange $25,000 billboard shows four small pictures, including the Roman deity Neptune, Jesus Christ, Santa Claus and a suit-wearing devil with giant horns.

Above the photos it says, "37 Million Americans know Myths when they see them," then the question, "What do you see?"

It's a less-inflammatory billboard than last year's, which showed three wise men traveling toward Joseph and Mary, who were kneeling beside a manger. Above the black-silhouetted design, it proclaimed, "You KNOW it's a myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON."

Last year, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights received a donation from an anonymous 80-year-old Austrian man to put up their own billboard, proclaiming "You Know It's Real: This Season, Celebrate Jesus," with a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.

But this year, there's not the intense resentment over the Atheists' billboard, mainly because it's confusing, Catholic League president Bill Donohue told the New York Times.

"It's inane," Donohue said of the new billboard. "Nobody knows what this means. I mean, Neptune? Over here, we just looked at each other in puzzlement. Whenever you do a billboard, it has to have tremendous clarity and be quick and easy. If you have to keep thinking about it, it fails."

In Leesburg, Va., the debate centered around a skeletal Santa nailed to a cross outside the Loudoun County Courthouse, as part of the annual lawn display.

Government officials were quick to condemn it and it was vandalized before it was eventually removed, sparking concerns that its removal violated free speech.

Middleburg resident Jeff Heflin Jr., applied independently for permission to install the display, describing it as a way 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," according to the Loudoun Times.

The city has allowed displays on the courthouse lawn for years even though a government-appointed citizen committee recommended in both 2009 and 2010 that such displays be eliminated.

This year, the Loudoun Times reports that the nine allowed displays include a display from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, two Nativity scenes, two atheist displays — including one that says, "Promoting Reason during the Holiday Season" — and a "Celebrating our Constitution" display, as well as the Santa Cross, "Tree of Knowledge" and "Letters from Jesus."

Lori Waters, a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is tired of seeing such animosity on the displays.

"It's December and, regardless of what you celebrate, isn't this the time to put the energy to advancing something in the community to do something good?" Waters told the Loudoun Times. "Generally I'd like to see the community stop having this nastiness and put your energy to something good instead of just being mean."

EMAIL: sisraelsen@desnews.com