Loudoun government center hosts prayer service; atheists protest
The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors chambers at the county government center housed a National Day of Prayer service at noon today, an event that drew four atheist protesters beforehand, including Wingrove.
Today's program at the government center served as a closing ceremony for the week-long “Bible Reading Marathon,” which was organized by the group Loudoun Awakening and held at an infamous Loudoun County-religious-atheist battleground – the Loudoun County Courthouse property.
“Why is it necessary to do this on government property?” Wingrove said Wednesday. “Given our secular Constitution and the Constitutional mandate that religion and government be separate, the most inappropriate place for religious proselytization is on government property.”
The CEO of Beltway Atheists and a frequent public speaker at Loudoun Board of Supervisors meetings, Wingrove used the event and National Day of Prayer as a symbol, he said, for how Loudoun officials continue to disregard the separation of church and state. Wingrove believes the U.S. Constitution is “disrespected” every time government opens its doors to “aggressive” religious group.
“The all-Republican board seems intent on facilitating christianism [sic] on government property, implicitly endorsing Christianity and blurring the line between religion and government,” Wingrove said.
County Attorney Jack Roberts on Wednesday said so long as the county isn't endorsing or sponsoring the prayer service, there isn't a concern regarding unconstitutionality. Just because the event is taking place at the county building -- public property -- doesn't mean the county is sponsoring the event, noted Roberts. Moreover, if Loudoun County isn't dictating or showing preference to one religion over another, there's no problem with the service, the county attorney said.
According to an announcement from the Loudoun Awakening organization, “the purpose of the National Day of Prayer is to seek God’s blessing and guidance over our nation.”
The Loudoun County Courthouse, just up the street from the government center, has been the setting for religious displays and protests in recent years. Several holiday and religious decorations were vandalized in 2011, bringing unwanted national headlines to the community. The most recent holiday season, however, proved relatively uneventful after the county sponsored an exhibition that included a Christmas tree, lights, ornaments, a spotlight, a nativity scene, a menorah and a Santa Claus with a sleigh and reindeer at the courthouse.
Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) said today he has no concerns about the prayer service being housed in the supervisors' chambers. Buona noted it's public property and Loudoun Awakening has the right to use the space, just like protesters have the right to peacefully protest.
Still, Wingrove points to the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …” – as a call for strict separation of church and state.
“The government must be neutral on matters of religion,” Wingrove said. “It would be better if religion was practiced in churches to those who are there voluntarily, while democracy and rights were dispensed by government to all.”
Other, seemingly Roberts and Buona included, believe as long as government isn't showing favoritism or preference to one religion over another, events such as today's service are OK. The question of Free Speech factors in as well, Roberts said.