In ancient Rome, the contest was Christians vs. lions. In Loudoun County today, it’s Christians vs. atheists.

This year, the atheists came out on top.

Unlike in Rome, neither side ate the other. But the passions still run strong in what’s becoming an annual competition each December for 10 precious spots on the lawn of the historic county courthouse in Leesburg, where the rivals get a chance to publicly promote their philosophies.

One side celebrates the birth of Jesus with Nativity scenes and a Christmas tree. The other marks the winter solstice with banners and signs praising reason, denouncing religion as superstition and, in one case, quoting from “Star Wars.” (A plan to explicitly endorse the Jedi faith was scrapped on grounds it was too inflammatory.)

Selection is done strictly on a first-come, first-served basis. This year, the atheists grabbed an early lead. They submitted four applications in July, before the Christians realized they were behind and finally put in for a creche in August.

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