Atheist activists from Wisconsin picked the biggest city in the Bible Belt for their largest advertising campaign, posting 50 billboards in metro Atlanta this week with messages including “Imagine No Religion.”
The non-profit Freedom From Religion Foundation, which says it is the largest organization of non-believers with 16,000 members, has placed billboards in about 45 cities in 30 states since October 2007, said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. The Atlanta billboards are part of a southern membership and education push, she said.
“It’s a strategic place to begin this conversation,” said Derrick Lemons, an instructor in the Religion Department of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia. “People in the area of the country especially will take offense to it and will start conversations which is, when it comes to marketing, a great thing to have.”
Lemons, who discussed the billboards with students in class this week, said the Atlanta campaign has similar goals to the activism displayed by a Gainesville, Florida preacher who threatened to burn the Koran on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. “When people are unhappy with the discussion that’s going on, you have to start something to begin new conversations.”
Gaylor called the campaign “an intellectually responsible alternative,” to religious programming in the media. “Religion is winning by default, why are we letting them dominate everything? You can turn on the television or radio 24/7 and be preached at,” she said.
The messages in Atlanta include, “God & Government: A Dangerous Mix” and “In Reason We Trust,” which is depicted on a penny replacing the word “God.” Another shows the face of actress Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in the 1939 Civil War movie classic “Gone With the Wind,” beside a quote in which she says, “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.”
The foundation purchased the Atlanta ad space at a bargain price from New York-based CBS Outdoor, a division of CBS Corp., Gaylor said. She declined to disclose the price and Shannon Jacobs, a spokeswoman for CBS, wouldn’t comment. Many of the billboards are smaller than those typically seen on interstates and came at a better price because the foundation took what was available, Gaylor said.
Several of the billboards up by late yesterday were in lower-income areas of Atlanta. One billboard, roughly 5 feet by 11 feet, reading, “Sleep in on Sundays,” was across the street from a church.
The foundation doesn’t generally target churches for their billboards and they don’t avoid them, Gaylor said.
“No one ever goes around and asks churches if it is in bad taste to have a tortured man writhing on a cross,” Gaylor said. “Sometimes crucifixes have been placed in public parks.”
The foundation has sued over such displays and hires outside attorneys to litigate alleged violations of the separation of church and state. The foundation has two staff attorneys for non-litigation matters, she said.
This isn’t the foundation’s first foray into Georgia. In 2007, it placed a single billboard in Norcross, an Atlanta suburb. The group has posted 20 billboards in Tampa, Florida, 20 in Louisville, Kentucky, five in New Orleans and one in Oklahoma in recent weeks.
Freedom from Religion Foundation is best known for a federal lawsuit prompting a judge to rule in April that a National Day of Prayer proclaimed by the U.S. Congress is unconstitutional.
Federal U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb in Wisconsin likened the National Day of Prayer to encouraging “citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic.” President Barack Obama appealed the ruling, which was stayed pending a decision.
--Editors: Anita Sharpe, Steve Walsh
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