Atheist billboard burned (well, almost) in New Jersey. Why?

Atheist billboard: The billboard in New Jersey proclaims "Keep Saturn in Saturnalia" but someone tried to burn it down. The billboard is one atheist group's response to another sign in Pitman that says "Keep the Christ in Christmas."

(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
The letter "A," which stands for Atheist or Agnostic, was erected by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation,at the annual Christmas market in Chicago's Daley Plaza. Members of the group say it's meant to send a message that they believe that religious displays on public property are a violation of the separation of church and state.

Police say someone tried to torch a billboard in New Jersey that was put up by atheists to protest a "Keep Christ in Christmas" banner.

The billboard proclaims "Keep Saturn in Saturnalia," a reference to an ancient celebration of the Roman god of agriculture. It's paid for by the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Authorities say it was torched Tuesday night by two unidentified men who fled in a pickup truck.

The sign didn't burn, but its steel support beams were charred.

The atheist group has been trying since 2011 to have a privately funded Christmas banner in Pitman removed or have one added for nonbelievers.

The foundation is offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspects.

The news site reports that the fight between the borough and the foundation dates back to 2011, when the foundation challenged the legality of the “Keep Christ in Christmas” sign that hangs over Broadway in downtown Pitman.

The foundation claimed that, through their investigation of open public records, the Knights of Columbus, a local religious organization who puts up the banner each year, did not have the proper permit to hang the sign even though it was hung on private property.

Borough Mayor Russell Johnson tells at while he recognizes the foundation is completely within their boundaries to have the billboard stationed at the intersection, as a practicing Catholic, he still doesn’t appreciate the foundation’s attempt to challenge the Knights’ sign.

“In my elected capacity, I understand that they have the right of freedom of speech,” said Johnson. “It absolutely bothers me on a personal level as a resident. I recognize the (“Keep Christ in Christmas”) banner on Broadway.”

“But I don’t have to look at it,” added Johnson.

In Chicago, the same atheist group has erected an 8-and-a-half foot tall letter "A," which stands for Atheist or Agnostic, at the annual Christmas market in Chicago's Daley Plaza, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, in Chicago.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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