Atheist Billboards Used to Promote Religious FreedomBy: Shannon Walsh - November 27, 2013
The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation consists of a group of non-believers, who aim to promote religious freedom. They are engaged in a campaign that will continue to advance the separation of the church and state through their use of fifty-five billboards. In order to bring broader visibility to their lack of religious faith, the billboards will be placed throughout the Sacramento Valley, California landscape with featured slogans and pictures of local residents. This campaign follows similar ones that have taken place in other major U.S. cities in recent years.
The messages are used as a vehicle of expression, in order to encourage other non-believers to “come out of the closet” and to be open about their atheism, especially during the holiday season. By doing so, the messages create widespread controversy, deeply impacting the hearts of “believers” throughout the country. The atheist billboards have become a part of the public debate between religious conservatives and atheist individuals, who prefer to set religion aside and out of the public life.
“The whole month of December is taken over in a celebration of the religious beliefs, in particular Christianity, and it’s just as if the whole month turns non-believers into outsiders,” stated Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Foundation. She also stressed that the campaign is not meant to insult Christmas or any other holidays, but to inspire individuals to ignore the religious undertones. According to Gaylor, the group sought out Sacramento-area members to share their views from their perspectives as non-believers. The response was so extremely positive that the organization had to build a contract with a second billboard company to meet the high demand.
“I believe in people, not gods,” reads a message from Liz Shoemaker, a Sacramento teacher. Another statement from Matt and Kimberly Martin, a Sacramento couple, reads, “Integrity and compassion require no gods.” These billboards portray residents against “softly colored backgrounds” that list their names and the communities in which they reside. Gaylor said, “We’re a free society, and it’s the free marketplace of ideas. It should be debated publicly. What’s wrong with open debate?” In fact, it would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment to prohibit freedom of expression, and conversely, the Amendment also protects the right to freedom of religion, or, in this case, lack thereof.
James Murphy, Monsignor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, agrees that people can do good without being religious and that atheists have a right to express their views on billboards and anywhere else. “I wish they weren’t up there…but I’m not going to fight their rights,” he said. Though, he did find it ironic that the billboards plan to be deployed after Thanksgiving, which is a holiday that shows a culture deeply rooted in religion. The billboards are set to go up in Sacramento on the day after Thanksgiving, yet there are other reports stating that they will be put up on Monday, December 2, 2013. The organization also plans to make their mark in Chicago as well. They plan on placing a large “A”, for atheism, in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, which is the site of an annual Christmas display.
Gaynor firmly believes that the campaign can show non-believers one significant point: that they do not have to hide their views in a polarized nation where atheists and agnostics often feel isolated. “Those of us who are free from religion, who work to keep dogma out of government, science, medicine, and education, have a lot to offer society,” she exclaimed. Bishop Jaime Soto, of Sacramento’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, states, “While I’m not happy about this kind of propaganda going out, particularly in this area, I am fairly certain that people still, when they look deep down in their soul and in their heart, there is this spark of faith.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons