Atheist Group Targets Holiday Displays

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A Wisconsin-based atheist group is taking aim at once-innocuous nativity scenes and other religious decorations around the country this holiday season.

Earlier this month, the Freedom from Religion Foundation wrote to Pitman, N.J., Mayor Mike Batten to ask that he remove the city's "Keep Christ in Christmas" banner that hangs over a county road.

In Athens, Texas, the group posted a sign on the courthouse lawn near a nativity display Wednesday afternoon, that read, in part, "There are no gods, no devils, no angles, no heaven, and no hell." It's the same message on all of their signs, which are being distributed in several states, including California where the FFRF targeted a nativity scene display that's been a tradition for nearly 60 years at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif.

And just last night, a sign went up in Warren, Mich.

"There was a nativity display in the atrium of city hall and they've been stalling us but we've come up with an indoor display," she said FFRF co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor.

So far the organization has only posted a handful of signs with help from its 17,000 members, but Gaylor has set her sights on wider distribution.

"I think we could get a system going where there could be dozens and dozens going out, if not hundreds," Gaylor told ABCNews.com.

In Texas, the nativity scene had been a part of the Athens courthouse lawn holiday decorations for at least 20 years, alongside snowmen, elves and Santa.

Texas judge Richard Sanders told ABCNews.com nobody had ever tried to put a sign with an atheist message on the courthouse lawn before.

He asked sheriff's deputies to take the sign down because he said the FFRF member who posted it didn't have permission.

"We're not trying to promote any religion, it's just a nice part of our decoration," Sanders said.

But promoting religion is exactly what the FFRF says these cities are doing when they display religious-themed decorations.

"Our whole position is that we don't believe religious symbols and displays belong on public property," Gaylor said.

It's a controversial stance that has turned her organization into a magnet for hate mail and angry phone calls. Gaylor said one her "favorites" was the recent message, "Don't you know what f***ing Christmas is all about?"

But Gaylor insists FFRF's point of view will, one day, become the norm.

"Non-believers are growing so fast in this country … the government will not be able to get away with showing this kind of preference for nativity scenes," she said.

Damon Vix, the FFRF member in Santa Monica, Calif., who encouraged other atheist organizations to apply for the right to use public space at Palisades Park, was successful in dominating the city's lottery system.

The atheist groups who entered the lottery, such as American Atheists, won 18 plots at the park. Religious groups were given two plots. They usually use 14 to tell the nativity story.

"[The park is] not supposed to be used to promote religion -- it is explicitly promoting religion and it has been even though the city isn't directly financially supporting it," Vix told ABC News Los Angeles station KABC. "And that's the main issue here, a separation of church and state."

Hunter Jameson, the spokesman for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, told KABC the FFRF is trying to suppress their first amendment rights by "pushing us out of the park."

"We have no objection to their being there, it's fine. They can be there and express their views all they want. They have been there in the past," Jameson said.

But he does object to the groups using so many of the available spaces.

But Vix told the station atheist groups are going to continue fighting.

"There's a growing secular movement that wants to be vocal," Vix told KABC. "We're happy about what we believe, we believe we have an equal say and we're going to say it. And we're going to fight for our rights."

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