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Lamar Advertising's GM dubs the rejection of an atheist group's controversial billboard a judgment call


Greg Horton September 16th, 2010

Nick Singer, president of Oklahoma Atheists, said the billboard serves the purposes of attracting similar thinkers and telling the religious community that they exist.

Don't believe in God? An organization called The Oklahoma City Coalition of Reason invites metro atheists, skeptics, freethinkers and agnostics to join one of four local groups dedicated to free thought, and a billboard at Interstate 44 and N.W. 10th Street is its primary outreach tool.

Nick Singer, president of Oklahoma Atheists, said the billboard serves a twofold purpose.

"We want to let like-minded people know we're here and help them find a group," Singer said, "and we want to let religious Oklahomans know that we're here and tell them that we're your neighbors; we contribute positively to this community."

The billboard reads: "Don't believe in God? Join the club."

Atheists do not believe in God or other deities. The Oklahoma City Coalition of Reason's web address is listed: okccor.org. The national Coalition of Reason began in February 2009. Fred Edwords, its director, said the decision to form a national organization followed the Philadelphia COR's billboard campaign in fall 2008.

"The overall reaction has been positive," Edwords said. "Many freethinkers are saying, 'Where have you been all my life?' There has been some criticism from people of traditional religious faith, but with rare exceptions, the hostility has been very mild."

Singer said he had not heard very much criticism in Oklahoma, either, which became a surprise, considering that the billboard was rejected by one outdoor advertising company as "too controversial."

"We went to Lamar first, but the local general manager rejected it," Singer said. "It's frustrating, because Lamar has the majority of boards in Oklahoma City, and the one we really wanted was a Lamar board."

Bill Condon, the general manager for Lamar Advertising of Oklahoma City, said his decision to reject the ad was a judgment call.

"I don't think it mirrors the values of the majority of people here in Oklahoma City," he said.

Condon said he often rejects ads based on perceived community values. Lamar doesn't take advertising from strip clubs or other businesses that don't mirror community standards.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation " in conjunction with Tulsa COR " placed an ad in Tulsa this month on a Lamar billboard on the Broken Arrow Expressway. The sign reads, "Atheism is OK in Oklahoma." Below that line is "Saluting Gore " First Atheist Senator."

The sign refers to Thomas Gore, grandfather of novelist Gore Vidal, and Oklahoma's debut senator (1907-1921 and 1931-1937). Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, said the idea for the sign came from retired professor and Tulsa resident Bill Dusenberry, a Tulsa COR member.

"Mr. Dusenberry got the idea after reading an interview with Gore Vidal in (the magazine) The Humanist," Gaylor said. "Vidal called his grandfather, Thomas Gore, a 'dedicated atheist.'"

The idea that Oklahoma's debut senator was a "dedicated atheist" was surprising enough that Lamar Tulsa asked for documentation. The FFRF was happy to provide it, as well as a "very enthusiastic thumbs-up" from Vidal himself, according to Gaylor.

The FFRF formed in 1977 in Madison, Wis., and went national the following year. Gaylor said the organization liked the idea of the Tulsa billboard to highlight that atheists, skeptics and freethinkers ought to be members of Congress in proportion to the U.S. population.

"Approximately 15 percent of the population is nonreligious," Gaylor said, "but Pete Stark is the only 'out' member of Congress." Stark is a U.S. congressman from Fremont, Calif.

Gaylor said the FFRF has billboards in several American cities; the Tulsa board went up the same week as a campaign in Atlanta that included 50 billboards. There are 20 in Louisville, Ky., and 19 in Trenton, N.J. The Tulsa billboard was the "debut event" for the local chapter.

"We want to enlighten, educate, raise consciousness and make sure religion doesn't win by default," Gaylor said.

Gaylor also said she wasn't surprised that Lamar rejected the Oklahoma City ad.

"We've been censored by every outdoor company in one city or another," she said. "We got censored in Las Vegas, of all places, by a company that has some very suggestive ads. Lamar has worked with us in a few places, and they've refused us in a few. We just go find a company that will work with us. We understand that no one has a First Amendment right to place an ad on a billboard."

Singer said the OKC ad is attracting plenty of attention.

"I was interviewed on a couple of radio stations (last) week, and we've seen an 85-percent spike in our online traffic. Nearly every news outlet is talking about it."

Singer, like Edwords, said the criticism has been very mild. Edwords thinks it's because COR takes a non-confrontational approach.

"We don't attack other people's beliefs," Edwords said. "We simply let people know we exist. We know some are offended simply because we exist, but we're not criticizing their beliefs.""Greg Horton | Photo/Mark Hancock
 
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