Battle over 'Keep Christ in Christmas' sign heats up; arsonist tries to set fire to billboard

3:00 PM, Dec 20, 2013   |    comments
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Pitman, NJ (Courier-Post/USA TODAY) -- It wasn't exactly hellfire, but someone tried to torch a New Jersey billboard that carries an atheist group's holiday message.

According to borough police, two men doused gasoline on the sign at West Holly Avenue and Lambs Road, then tried to set it ablaze around 10:45 p.m. Tuesday.

The suspects drove away when an off-duty police officer approached the scene and the flames caused little damage before burning out, authorities said.

The billboard, which reads "Keep Saturn in Saturnalia," is being rented for the month by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group has objected for the past three years to a Knights of Columbus banner in downtown Pitman that says "Keep Christ in Christmas."

Saturnalia was an ancient holiday, held near the winter solstice, that honored the Roman god Saturn. The billboard also shows the ringed planet named for Saturn.

Mayor Russell Johnson blasted the arson attempt, which followed several other protests at the billboard. He noted a fire could have spread to a large forest behind the billboard.

"These people in no way represent the spirit of the community or the spirit of the banner that hangs over Broadway," the mayor said of the would-be arsonists.

"We have zero tolerance for this."

At the same time, Johnson said he was not surprised someone tried to deface the billboard, which went up last Thursday. "I feared that from day one," he said.

Pitman Police Chief Robert Zimmerman said an investigation continues and patrols are being increased near the billboard, "especially in the evenings and off-hours."

Police said the suspects fled in a pickup truck with ladder racks. The vehicle may have been blue and silver. The foundation offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to the suspects' arrest and conviction.

"Vandalism like this amounts to censorship and suppression of minority viewpoints," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the atheist group's co-president. "It's especially dismaying given that it likely was done by religious persons who supposedly abide by Christian principles."

Andrew Seidel, a staff attorney for the foundation, said the "incredibly disturbing" arson attempt could be considered a bias intimidation crime if the offenders wanted to intimidate non-believers.

"This is not the first attempt that has been made on our billboard," he added. "Things have been escalating."

Seidel noted a man in a Santa suit protested over the weekend at the site, where local residents have placed a number of pro-Christmas signs, and a family of four tried to drape a banner over the billboard Sunday.

The family brought a ladder to the site and left when police arrived, Seidel noted.

"I'm almost speechless at that - parents with their children, making them accessories to a property crime in the name of their religion. It's really just appalling."

"It's an ongoing battle that just proves people are too sensitive," says Danielle Roberts, 24, of Pitman, N.J. "The law is clear. While people are entitled to believe in whatever they choose, Pitman should not be giving preferential treatment to one belief over another."

Pitman says it has no plans on forcing the banner to come down.

"I'm split, because I really don't care what anyone chooses to celebrate or for what reasons, but the Christmas sign goes up in the middle of the street and no one says anything," Tyler Lovelace, 22, says. "The second something opposes popular opinion in Pitman, I get 50 people complaining about it and people trying to burn it to the ground."

As for resident Robert Eck's opinion? "Just keep the nog in eggnog."

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