By Joe Beck
Vandals delivered a couple of pre-Christmas messages clearly lacking in tidings of comfort and joy to a sign promoting secular humanist beliefs on the Warren County courthouse lawn.
Authorities said Thursday the sign was spray painted overnight on Dec. 16 and then damaged in a fire in the early morning hours of Dec. 21.
The county fire marshal and sheriff's office are investigating the fire and the sheriff's office is also investigating the spray painting.
Gene Rigelon, coordinator of the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists, said the partially burned sign will remain standing through the holiday season and then be replaced next year. County workers removed the spray paint after the first incident, he said. The fire left both panels of the sign with slight smoke damage in the front and heavily charred in the back, he said.
Rigelon, a Front Royal resident, said it was the first time he had encountered any hostility toward the sign in the seven years it has been sharing space on the lawn with the nativity scene.
"I've always been surprised and happy that Front Royal was accepting of it, but not this year," he said. "I guess this year somebody got a little mad about it."
Rigelon said "a whole bunch of rags" soaked in gasoline and used to set the fire were found behind the signs.
Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico of the Warren County Fire and Rescue Service said his department fielded a 911 call at 2:17 a.m. on Dec. 21 from a passerby who noticed the fire. Maiatico said Front Royal police officers had extinguished the blaze by the time the fire department arrived.
"They beat the fire department to the scene; they were able to extinguish the fire using fire extinguishers," Maiatico said.
Maiatico provided no further details on the investigation.
"We are in the middle of an investigation," he said. "We've got a couple leads we want to work."
Rigelon said the sign is divided into two panels, one bearing a seasonal greeting from his organization and quotations from President John F. Kennedy on the importance of separating church and state. The second panel lists the principles of secular humanism.
Rigelon said the sign cost about $300 when it was erected and probably will cost more to replace. He said the Washington Area Secular Humanists, the umbrella organization for the Shenandoah branch and several others in Virginia, paid for the sign.
Rigelon said county officials have declared the courthouse lawn an open forum, meaning if they allow a nativity scene, they also are required to make room for his organization's display.
Rigelon said he did not believe any private displays should be allowed on the courthouse lawn, but he felt compelled to respond to the nativity scene with a display of his organization's philosophy.
He described the vandalism as a "cowardly act."
"If anybody has any problem with the humanist sign I put up, I will be glad to discuss it with them," he said. "They don't need to resort to that stuff at all."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org