In March, even as Einstein was still sitting proudly on the lawn of the Loudoun County Courthouse in downtown Leesburg, I submitted an application to the county to put up our next display in April. By luck, Thomas Jefferson has an April birthday. It just seemed ideal for our next exercise in free speech.
This morning my application was denied in a terse email from the county. Back to that in a minute.
As many of you know, Beltway Atheists is engaged in a program I informally call Science on the Lawn, although it will inevitably include figures related to Separation. This all started before Christmas of 2009 when the county, fearing it would get sued, decided with the help of the ACLU, that if they wanted to keep the Nativity scene they had hosted for the last 40 years, they were going to have to let others put displays on the Courthouse lawn. So we did.
Free speech is a tricky thing, as the county has discovered. It turns out that certain elected officials were not counting on people, especially the atheist community, actually using it. And they seem less than enthusiastic about it now that we are actually taking advantage of it. For Christmas of 2010, the atheist community put up displays in 6 of the 10 available spots on the Courthouse lawn including the coveted corner spot where the nativity scene had always been set up.
Some local officials have made no secret of their disdain for our very presence. Prior to our Einstein display, another member, Larry M. and I attended a Grounds Committee meeting to observe the process and to make sure that no one was trying to screw us. Someone was trying to screw us. One member of the community clearly resented our presenced and seized on a technicality to try to deny us a permit. The technicality? We had not stated a specific numbered spot where we wanted to place our display. That was not an oversight – it was what we had been instructed to do by the county when there were applications for all of the spots. We were told not to ask for a specific spot because they would be handed out on a first come, firt served basis. Besides, there were no other applications for displays, so I wasnt competing agains anyone for a spot!
So when the surly board member tried to pull that , I quickly pulled out the extra copy of the application that I had brought with me, scribbled in a plot number and put it in his hands. Figuratively speaking, his head exploded. But we got our permit.
So anyway, this morning our permit for April was denied. I suspected that that might happen because there were other members of the Grounds committee who were also openly contemptuous of our assault on the regular order in the county. Another clue was when the contact for the Grounds committee emailed me a few day ago asking me to submit the content of our display in advance for consideration. I declined to do that. To do so would have been an agreement to censorship – a concession that the content was subject to the approval of people who had previously tried to prevent our participation. The denial email stated the failure to submit content for approval as the reason for the denial.
So, I pulled out the General Rules on the county website. These are the rules the county agreed to and put into effect less than a year ago – rules they grudgingly agreed to so that they could continue to invite the religious displays onto the lawn with legal coverage. And, just as I thought, the rules do not require anyone to submit their content for approval.
I immediately responded to the denial email, informing the county that the committee was once again seizing on a technicality to deny me permission to put up a display, but with one major difference: this technicality was not in the published rules.
I also wrote an appeal letter to be hand delivered to the office of the County Administrator the next day. As I carefully constructed a very grown up sounding appeal making my case point by point, I had no idea that it would never be delivered.
Late in the day, the Chairman of the Grounds committee called me at home. When I met him at the committee meeting we attended, I immediately pegged him as a closet atheist and an ally. I was not mistaken. He told me that he wanted to help me get my permit through so that I could put up the Jefferson banner as requested in time for Tom’s birthday. He was going to walk it around to the other members and get it approved by the next day.
But, disappointingly, he asked me to submit the contents of the banner for approval because it was the only way he would be able to get signoff from a mojority.
Just to put it behind us, Ioffered this compromise: I said I would, as a courtesy to the committee, provide the text of the banner to him IF he would first get a statement from the committee acknowledging that what they were asking was not required by the rules. The committee chairman said he would see if he could get some version of that statement agreed to by a majority.
Less than a half hour later, the chairman called me back and told me that I was correct, that I was absolutely NOT required to submit content for approval and that my permit had been approved.
If you are keeping score, that’s a clean win. Thomas Jefferson will go up as scheduled in April. This has been a very long day.