December 2, 2010 / 10:39 PM / 7 years ago

Atheists and Catholics in holiday billboard fight

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) -- Catholics and atheists are doing battle over the holiday season with dueling billboards on opposite sides of the Hudson River separating New York and New Jersey.

The American Atheists organization fired the opening shot the Monday before Thanksgiving with its billboard on Route 495 in North Bergen, New Jersey.

It tells drivers: "You Know It's a MYTH," a slogan set against a traditional nativity scene with three wise men and two figures in a manger.

The Catholic League fired back with its own billboard on the Manhattan side of the Lincoln Tunnel saying: "You Know it's Real. This Season, Celebrate Jesus," set against a picture of the infant Christ with his parents, Mary and Joseph.

The league, a Catholic civil rights organization, said it responded to the atheists' billboard because it wanted to counteract what it sees as a negative view of Christmas.

"We decided to counterpunch after a donor came forward seeking to challenge the anti-Christmas statement by American Atheists," the league said in a statement on its website.

"Our approach is positive, and services the common good," the League's statement said. "Theirs is negative, and is designed to sow division. It's what they do."

Jeff Field, a spokesman for the League, said its billboard is designed to counteract any doubts raised by its opponent on the other side of the Hudson.

"They want Christians who are driving through the Lincoln Tunnel to doubt their faith," he said. "When they get to the other side, there will be something there to lift their spirits."

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said its billboard, costing $20,000 for about a month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, is the organization's first to directly challenge what it believes are many atheists who go to church at Christmas but don't believe in God.

"We want to pull atheists out of the closet," Silverman said. "The churches are filled with atheists. They are being held prisoner by the idea that they can't come out of the closet."

Silverman said he has received more phone calls and emails -- from both supporters and opponents -- in response to the billboard than for any previous billboard by the national organization.

The billboard is passed by about 85,000 vehicles a day, Silverman said.

He said he had no plans for a further response to his opponents' board but accused the Catholic League of stealing his ideas.

"It's a little annoying that they couldn't come up with anything original," he said.

Reporting by Jon Hurdle; Editing by Jerry Norton

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