(Photo: Doug Larson / The Times)
A sign posted by an atheist organization in Illinois to counter a Christian display meant to celebrate Easter has been stolen by an unknown party.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nationwide atheist and church-state watchdog group, had posted the sign in a public park in Streator.
"This vandalism amounts to censorship and suppression of minority viewpoints. This crime against our banner shows the harm when a local government purports to create a 'public forum' for religion on government property," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, in a statement.
"There are tax-exempt Christian churches throughout Streator where it is appropriate to place Christian crosses and displays. A public park is not one of them."
For the past five years the Streator Freedom Association, a small Christian organization, has erected signs and crosses in a public park in the spring to commemorate Easter.
Signs have included the phrase "Jesus died for your sins" and John 3:16. FFRF argued that the displays were a violation of the separation of church and state. They argued that the Christian displays showed a government endorsement of Christianity.
City officials in Streator countered that the government was not endorsing Christianity, but rather their public park was a domain for expression, or "public forum." In response to this and at the apparent request of some local residents, FFRF put a sign in the park that read "Nobody died for our sins. Jesus Christ is a myth" and was placed behind the SFA's sign, which reads "Jesus died for your sins." According to Gaylor, the intention of the banner was to make the city reconsider its position on the park and religious displays.
"Our banner is a protest of the city's continued decision to permit public property to be misappropriated to promote an exclusionary evangelical message," said Gaylor.
In an interview with local media, City Manager Paul Nicholson said that both banners would remain on display at the park in accordance with the public forum policy of the city, but that officials might review the present policy.
"There are First Amendment issues at hand and the city cannot discriminate against anyone wishing to put up a display," said Nicholson.
"I suspect the City Council will review its policy in the next few weeks on expressions of positions, both religious and secular on city property."
Since the theft was discovered, FFRF has offered a $1,500 reward for any information that leads to the capture of the perpetrators. FFRF argues that the crime is not only a misdemeanor, but it also qualifies as a Class 4 felony under Illinois' hate crimes law.