Discuss as:

Atheist display: Skeleton Santa nailed to a cross

View more videos at: http://nbcwashington.com.


The skeleton in a Santa suit didn't survive for long outside the Loudoun County courthouse lawn, but it generated plenty of controversy in Leesburg, Va.

The skeleton was nailed to a cross on Monday by a mother and son associated with an atheist group, one of the nine approved displays for the Christmas season. But the macabre Kris Kringle was not standing for long. Someone tore the skeleton down, sparking a debate about free speech.

It's not a new argument. In 2009, Christmas displays on the courthouse lawn were banned after the constitutionality of a Nativity scene was questioned. Last year that decision was overturned, and 10 displays were allowed on the lawn based on a first-come, first-served basis.

Leesburg council member Ken Reid spoke out strongly against the skeletal Christmas display. "I think that it's just extremely, extremely sad," he said, "that somebody in this county who would try to basically debase Christmas like this. This really crossed the line."

After laying face down in the grass for several hours, the Santa-suited skull and bones was taken away on Monday night.

"The message to me at least," said Jonathan Weintraub, of the group NOVA Atheists, "is that the meaning of Christmas, which is about faith and family, is dead and has been replaced by commercialism."

Read full coverage on NBCWashington.com

According Julie Withrow, a Loudoun County administrator, the display belonged to Middleburg resident, Jeff Heflin Jr.

She told the Loudon Times that Heflin described the display in his application as an “art work of Santa on a cross 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.” Heflin was not part of any organization and sponsored the display himself, the newspaper reported.

The display was discussed Monday night at a Loudoun County Board of Supervisors meeting, where it was labeled "provocative" and "obscene." In the meeting, some suggested a complete ban of public displays in front of the courthouse.

County officials are still meeting to decide on what to do with the displays.

Read more content from msnbc.com and NBC News: