|A billboard with the message “Imagine No Religion” is no more.Sign company General Outdoor removed the sign by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on Thursday after it received a request by Rancho Cucamonga to do so.|
According to Redevelopment Director Linda Daniels, City Hall had received 90 calls of complaint since Wednesday.”We contacted the sign company and asked if there was a way to get it removed,” Daniels said.
The billboard — which went up last week on the southwest corner of Archibald Avenue and Foothill Boulevard — is part of a national billboard campaign by the Wisconsin-based group advocating the separation of church and state.
The foundation’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said the billboard is meant to encourage a debate on religion by using the John Lennon-inspired message.
Gaylor was shocked over the city’s role in the billboard’s demise.
“The city has no business suggesting our billboard be censored,” Gaylor said. “They’re not allowed to interfere over religious controversy.”
It was the second billboard to come down following city request.
In September, the city asked a different sign company to take down an advertisement on Foothill Boulevard advertising a vagina rejuvenation procedure.
Daniels said the city did not demand General Outdoor take down the “Imagine No Religion” sign.
“We didn’t say they had to (take it down), but they respected the concerns of residents,” Daniels said.
The sign was the first in California for the foundation, whose members are atheists and agnostics.
Gaylor said sign companies have declined business before, but no company has taken down a sign after it went up.
The group currently has signs in Atlanta, Phoenix and Seattle.
“My gosh, we have a billboard in Colorado Springs right now, about a mile from Focus on the Family,” said Gaylor, referring to the evangelical organization headquartered in Colorado Springs. “If we can have it in Colorado Springs, why not in Rancho Cucamonga? It doesn’t speak well for the state of tolerance if you have to stifle your critics.”
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said the city’s actions are “dangerously close” to censorship and a violation of the First Amendment.
“A city government has no business trying to dictate or influence the content of an advertising image, particularly one that’s political and controversial as this is simply because some people don’t like it and complained about it,” Scheer said. “The whole point of the First Amendment is to protect speech that is unpopular, to protect the views that are in the political minority, as long as they don’t cross the line and use the speech for some seriously unlawful purpose, which clearly did not happen here.”
Scheer said the city may not have forced General Outdoor to take down the sign, but it’s obvious the company did not act independently.
“It’s pretty clear that if the city didn’t pick up the phone, the image would still be there,” Scheer said.