While driving to the mall or grandma's house this holiday season, Utahns might notice some unusual holiday messages on billboards.
Like "Imagine No Religion" or "Reason's Greetings."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an association of atheists and agnostics that works to ensure separation of church and state, has for the first time extended its national holiday season billboard campaign to Utah.
Its four Beehive State billboards aim to let "nonbelievers" know they're not alone this time of year. They also are meant to celebrate reason and remind everyone of what the foundations sees as the true meaning behind the season: the winter solstice.
"We're glad to share the Christmas season with Christians, but they have stolen Christmas, and it is not the birthday of Jesus," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based organization. "It's a natural event, the winter solstice. ... The shortest day of the year has been celebrated for millennia in the Northern Hemisphere with decorations and lights and celebrations. We just think it's important to celebrate reason and celebrate reality."
She added that the foundation has heard there's a feeling of claustrophobia among non-Mormons and nonbelievers in Salt Lake City. "There's a great dominance there, so we want to be there, too."
Gaylor said the group wanted to put up signs in Utah several years ago but, at the time, billboard companies refused. The foundation claims about 17,000 dues-paying members nationwide and about 102 in Utah.
Bernie Anderson, pastor at Wasatch Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Salt Lake City, said the foundation is free, like anyone else, to express a viewpoint. But he sees a little irony in the way they're doing it.
"While they may not believe in God, they are still quite religious in their approach," Anderson said. "At some level, they are proselytizing, trying to convince others of their viewpoint."
Gregory Johnson, president of the Standing Together Ministries coalition of evangelical churches across the Wasatch Front, said he also respects the right of others to express their views, but he doesn't understand all of the group's actions.
"I don't know why the voice of the minority would overrule the expressions of faith in our society whether it be a Nativity on a lawn at Christmas, a menorah on the governor's lawn or a march around a community at Easter," Johnson said. "I am baffled, candidly, that this group feels the need to attack those things that are most sacred and special to people of faith."
Gaylor said the group had wanted to post another kind of billboard around the country but was largely rebuffed from doing so, including in Utah. That billboard would have included the phrase, "Yes, Virginia ... There Is No God" along with a picture of Santa designed by Steve Benson, an Arizona Republic cartoonist and grandson of late LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson.