In this Sept. 9, 2010 photo, a billboard erected by atheists in Oklahoma City reads " Don't believe in God? Join the club". Nick Singer, the coordinator of a local atheists' group called "Coalition of Reason," recently received $5,250 from its national counterpart to erect the billboard along Interstate 44 near the Oklahoma State Fair. Oklahoma ranks eighth in the nation for percentage of residents who self-identify as Christians (85 percent), according to an analysis of the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - As the Christmas season approaches in the United States, a group of non-believers in the California capital are planning to erect billboards explaining why they are atheists in hopes of bringing broader visibility to their lack of religious faith.
The 55 billboards that will soon dot the Sacramento landscape will feature pictures of local residents and slogans such as "Good without God," and follow similar campaigns in other major U.S. cities in recent years.
"Those of us who are free from religion, who work to keep dogma out of government, science, medicine and education, have a lot to offer society," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, which sponsored the ads.
The billboards set to go up in Sacramento on the day after Thanksgiving are part of the increasingly loud arguments between many deeply religious Christians whose faith has informed U.S. conservative politics for a generation, and a vocal cohort of secular, often younger voters who want to keep religion out of public life.
The foundation also plans to place a large version of the letter "A," for atheism, in Chicago's Daley Plaza, the site of an annual Christmas display.
The aim of the campaign is to show people who are not religious that they don't have to hide their views in a polarized nation where atheists and agnostics often feel isolated, Gaylor said.
The Sacramento billboards show smiling capital-area residents against softly colored backgrounds, listing their names and the communities in which they live.
"Doing good is my religion," says a sign featuring Mashariki Lawson, who identifies herself on the billboard as a "humanist."
"Believe in yourself," says another sign, featuring Sacramento resident Julia Verdugo.
Monsigneur James Murphy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento said he found it ironic that the billboards were planned to go up the day after Thanksgiving, a holiday he said showed that U.S. culture was deeply rooted in religion.
Murphy said he agreed that people can do good without being religious, and said that atheists have a right to express their opinions - on billboards and elsewhere.
"I wish they weren't up there ... but I'm not going to fight their rights," Murphy said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Doina Chiacu)