A Republican senator in New York has opposed and is finding ways to remove a new billboard launched by the American Atheists group in Times Square that claims "nobody" needs Christ during Christmas.
State Sen. Andrew Lanza from Staten Island, N.Y., is running a petition calling for "the immediate withdrawal" of the advertisement, a 40'x40' billboard that uses motion graphics to ask "Who needs Christ during Christmas?" and then crosses out the word "Christ" and replaces it with "Nobody."
The petition will be forwarded to the Mayor's Office, the City Council, the State Attorney General's office and the Times Square merchant community, according to CBS.
"Just as millions of Americans are preparing to celebrate Christmas, the American Atheists organization has ridiculed the solemn beliefs of millions of New Yorkers," Lanza said in a statement, highlighting that the ad expresses a "lack of decency, civility and kindness" toward those who believe.
"It seems to me that this is part of a continued 'War on Christmas' and also upon the belief and value system of millions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim people who have faith in God," he said. "Religious persecution of the kind that similarly led to the Holocaust began with small baby steps of ridicule and hatred of the religious beliefs of others."
The atheist ad is scheduled to run for 15 seconds three times each hour, before moving to a three-board display at Penn Station during the coming week. It will be up through New Year's Day.
American Atheists reacted to Lanza's statement.
"Senator Lanza seems to be unaware that there are millions of atheists right here in New York," American Atheists President David Silverman said in a news release. "He accuses us of spewing religious hatred while he himself calls all atheists 'malicious' and 'hateful' for not believing in his god. We will not be silenced or smeared by a bigoted elected official, nor will we allow our members and the other tens of millions of American atheists to be slandered by a representative of our own government."
The atheist groups installed a billboard also in Lanza's district on Staten Island this past week.
"We stand behind our billboard and we want the people of Staten Island to know that they don't need religion to have a great Christmas, either," Silverman said, of the new billboard. "We are putting up this billboard as a challenge to Senator Lanza. Now the question is, was the senator posturing, or does he have the guts to call for a boycott in his own district?"
Further, American Atheists wrote to the senator.
"You are petitioning, on your official government-hosted website, to suppress our Constitutional right to freedom of speech," the group told Lanza in a letter signed by Silverman. "This is truly an act that should frighten Americans. Your abuse of your office to attempt to silence a minority group is not only un-American, it is the antithesis of the ideals upon which our nation was founded."
However, Lanza says the tone and content of the message is the issue. "I defend the right not to believe as strongly as the right to have faith," he wrote in a statement. "I firmly believe, however, that neither should be used to demean the other."
Radio host Glenn Beck agrees with Lanza.
"You have every right not to celebrate Christmas; not to believe in God, and I support you. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you in saying, 'I don't have to have a God.' …I disagree with you, but that's my business; that's what my conscience tells me. That's what I believe. What you believe is your business. And as long as you are neither picking my pocket or breaking my leg, I have no problem with that," Beck said on his radio show last week. "But to do a campaign like this and to come out and pee all over somebody is not necessary."
At the launch of billboard, Silverman said in a statement, "This year, start a new tradition: Don't go to church. You hate it, it's boring; you probably only go because you feel guilty or obligated. Instead, spend more time with your family and friends – or volunteer. There are better uses of your time and money."
Last year, American Atheists released an ad calling Jesus a "useless savior," which read: "Sadistic God; Useless Savior, 30,000+ Version of 'Truth.' Promotes Hate, Calls it 'Love.'"
Also last year, the group launched its Christmas billboard campaign, urging people to abandon the Jesus Christ "myth." "Keep the merry! Dump the myth!" the billboard read, which featured a jolly image of Santa Clause above a solemn wooden figure of the crucified Christ.
Of late, Times Square has become a battleground for Christian and atheist billboard messages.
In October, Creationist group Answers in Genesis put up an ad stating, "Thank God you're wrong." Freedom From Religion Foundation later posted a response ad with the phrase "OMG, there is no god!" alongside the face of former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Julia Sweeney.