I am a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the country's largest group of freethinkers. One stated purpose of this organization is as watchdog over church/state separation issues. So I find the following story quite ironic. FFRF.org is reporting that it's first billboard to go up in California was taken down after less that one week despite the fact that they had pre-paid for 2 months of time. You can see the billboard above at its short-lived location in Rancho Cucamonga, located in Southern California's lovely Inland Empire. Details are sketchy as to exactly the sequence of events, but apparently the city received complaints about the billboard and decided to contact the billboard company owner to see how it could be taken down. It may be that a single city employee was the driver behind the effort. Either way, FFRF has filed suit against the city for unlawfully interfering with free expression. I can't express the basic sentiment of the suit any better than what is written in the filing.
"The principal function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute, and such speech may best serve its purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions are (sic) they are, or even stirs people to anger."The bedrock principle underlying the scope of the free speech protection of the First Amendment is that government officials may not interfere with the expression of an idea simply because some persons allegedly consider the idea offensive or disagreeable to their views."
Of course, the local news stations covered the "controversial" billboard and interviewed with local residents. One common theme heard in some of the interviews was the idea that the billboard should be taken down because it is offensive.
First of all, I'm not sure why someone would be offended by this billboard. It is simply suggesting that maybe without the petty sectarian differences incited by religious beliefs, there might be more common ground for dialogue. Personally I believe that without religion people would find some other criteria for creating in-group and out-group thinking. Irrespective of my opinion, this is not a particularly offensive message. What is offensive are the billboards I see throughout the country that tell me that I, regardless of how good a person I might be, will be immersed in fire to suffer eternally for not bowing down the favored sky fairy of this particular country. How rude.
Secondly, why would anyone think that they are entitled to be shielded from speech that they disagree with? The very fundamental founding principles of this country ensure that they will be exposed. As difficult as it is to hear someone deny that evolution is one of the most solidly established scientific theories that exists, I would never deny anyone the right to make such a claim and to pronounce it from the highest mountain (edit: as long as that mountain isn't in a science classroom).
Ultimately, I think Rancho Cucamonga may have bitten off more than they can chew. In essence they have challenged the one group in the US that has the most experience litigating state/church issues (all the way to SCOTUS). I look forward to the resolution and will let you know as things develop.