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Imagine ... no free speech

November 30, 2008 |  4:46 pm

Billboards, atheism, Rancho Cucamonga, lawsuit, First AmendmentWith all the irritating billboards out there -- the garish illuminated ones, the ones for cholesterol-dealing fast food and CDs with lyrics guaranteed to offend someone, the wallpaper billboards of dubious legality plastered over the entire side of a building -- this is the one that ticked off Rancho Cucamonga so much that it got not only taken down, but destroyed?

The billboard was up for one week alongside Route 66, the Mother Road. It bore these words: '''Imagine No Religion.'' Okay, certainly a conversation-starter, but surely no more so than it was 37 years ago when John Lennon put it on his ''Imagine'' album.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the group that put the billboard there as it has in eleven other states, is now suing Rancho Cucamonga and its redevelopment director, who supposedly contacted the billboard company to report residents' complaints and to ask whether anything could be done.

Gee, if only the city of Los Angeles were as quick to spring into action when it comes to handling its billboard blight!

But this is about free speech, not billboard laws -- the selective destruction of a mildly provocative message that a few dozen people bothered to complain about.

I suppose it's only surprising that I'm still surprised. Atheists rank among the most despised groups in the country. Over the decades, more Americans have told pollsters they would far rather vote for Muslims or Jews or Catholics -- name your religious minority of the moment -- than vote for atheists.

The numbers have shifted bit; fifty years ago, 75% of voters wouldn't vote for an atheist for president. A year ago that number had dropped to 53%, according to a Gallup poll, but Newsweek's poll the same year put the number at 63%.

It isn't just about public office; five years ago, a Pew poll found that 52% of Americans had an unfavorable or very unfavorable attitude about any atheists. By now someone's surely come up with bumper sticker, something like ''No God = No Good.'' (If anyone does decide to print those up, be sure to contact my lawyer about royalties.)

So, good work, you few dozen Rancho Cucamongans who complained about the billboard. You got your way.

Now, let's see what billboard goes up in place of ''Imagine No Religion.'' Maybe a big, juicy ad for a strip club.

Photo illustration courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation website.

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