TAMPA - A group that advocates church-state separation is taking advantage of Florida's battered economy by launching a low-budget
The theme: Just say no – to religion.
"To be honest, the price was right," says Annie Laurie Gaylor,
co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
"We got some special rates that made it affordable to get our message
That message is going up this week on 20 billboards
in locations throughout Tampa and St. Petersburg. They include: The
face of a penny with the inscription "In Reason We Trust"; "Imagine No
Religion"; "God and Government: A Dangerous Mix"; and "Sleep in on
The foundation - which claims more than 15,500 members nationwide,
700 in Florida - spent $3,500 with CBS Outdoor for the month-long
Gaylor said this is the first time the nonprofit has brought its faith-free billboard campaign to Florida. Since October 2007, it has sponsored roadside messages in 40 cities in about half of the nation's states.
"Why Florida? The same reason you climb Mount Everest - because it's there," Gaylor said. "We want to have more of a presence in the South. And with elections coming up, there's no better time than now."
Gaylor said when she co-founded the Freedom From Religion as a
college student in 1976, the mood was much different in this country
and agnostics. People who didn't believe in God felt discriminated
against and were less likely to speak up about their non-beliefs.
"We wanted to put billboards up years ago but were usually censored," she said. The group's response: Protect the First Amendment because it protects you.
Now her group claims
about 15 percent of the population fits the nonreligious category,
faster growing than any other religious identification. She said there's
"more tolerance" for the freethinker's point of view.
Why bother standing up against something you don't believe even
exists? Because "we need to counter the propaganda" that consistently
promotes religion in the mass media, Gaylor said.
"Religion wins by default if we're not part of the discourse," she said.
She said the organization considers the billboard campaign
a good investment because it gets communities talking about the
religious debate, brings nonbelievers together and helps promote the
separation of church and state.
Cities coming up on the Southern rotation: New Orleans, Atlanta and Louisville.
One of Gaylor's favorite billboards
now on display in Watertown, Wisc. was underwritten by an elderly
benefactor who wanted to send an important message to his progeny:
"Enjoy Life Now: There is No Afterlife."
This may be the foundation's first foray into Florida, but it's not the first time billboards have been used for a bully pulpit for those with similar philosophies. In November, Atheists of Florida put up a sign in Lakeland asking the question: "Don't Believe in God?"
The answer ran right below: "You are not alone."
David Clarke(firstname.lastname@example.org), a Tampa psychologist and author of several Christian books, says he supports the right to post these billboards
but "feels sorrow" for the sponsors at the same time. Without God, he
said, "life is meaningless and there can't be any real morality."
He suggests they reconsider their point of view. No local churches
would be a "catastrophe" and could damage a community "beyond repair."
"These folks don't know what they are missing by sleeping in on
Sundays," Clarke said. "Church is not a chore or responsibility; it is
where we who love God worship and learn from the Bible how to impact the
world for God's glory."
He doesn't expect non-believers to suffer the wrath of God for their actions.
Quite the opposite.
"God loves these billboard people and desires them to begin a relationship with Him," Clarke said.