Two men tried to set this Pitman, NJ billboard on fire Tuesday
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.
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.
suspects drove away when an off-duty police officer approached the scene
and the flames caused little damage before burning out, authorities
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.
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.
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
"We have zero tolerance for this."
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.
Police Chief Robert Zimmerman said an investigation continues and
patrols are being increased near the billboard, "especially in the
evenings and off-hours."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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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