TAMPA — The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nationwide nonprofit of atheists and agnostics, is bringing its newest message to the Tampa Bay area this week — on the face of a penny.
Billboards featuring the slogan "In Reason We Trust" are expected to go up at various locations in Tampa and St. Petersburg, according to the group's co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor.
"We are offended to be left out of our national motto," Gaylor said, referring to the phrase, "In God We Trust," which appears on all U.S. coins. The motto, she said, excludes those who doubt or deny the existence of God, as well as those who believe in more than one God.
The motto was originally placed on coins during the Civil War, a time when religious fervor was on the rise, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Gaylor said her organization, an educational charity that fights for the separation of church and state, has sponsored 20 billboards in the Tampa Bay area. Some boards with the penny image and others reading "Imagine No Religion," "God & Government a dangerous mix," and "Sleep in on Sundays" are already up on several street corners, including 15th Street and Lake Avenue, 22nd Street and Cayuga Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Lois Avenue. The billboards will stay up about a month.
The point of the billboards, Gaylor said, is to both attract people to the organization and send the message that not all Americans believe in God or follow a religion.
"If all people see is religion, it wins by default," she said. "Florida has plenty of religion, but there are also a lot of free thinkers."
The foundation, based in Madison, Wis., has more than 700 members in Florida, Gaylor said. It has more than 15,500 members nationwide and has placed similar billboards in 25 states, according to the group's web site.
Gaylor said neither she nor her organization, can be characterized as anti-religion.
"We are promoting the use of reason," she said. "I am anti-religion in government. I do feel that religion is far more harmful than good. More people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason."
Still, not everyone supports the group's message or its method.
"For you to take God out of government, you would have to sandblast pretty much all of Washington that is just covered with prayers and with scriptures and with the thought of a sovereign God," said Ken Whitten, senior pastor at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. "The Ten Commandments that we live by today, everybody wants the fruit of those Ten Commandments. We just don't want the root of those Ten Commandments. Those people putting up those billboards, they don't want anybody stealing from them, they don't want anybody killing them."
James Harnish, senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist, said the relationship between faith or religion and government is a complex one that requires in-depth discussions.
"I think the questions that they are raising deserve a more meaningful conversation than you can have by just putting statements on billboards," Harnish said.
But both Whitten and Harnish said they support the group's right to voice its opinion.
"I would fight for their right to put up those billboards because they have a right to do that and a right to say that," Whitten said.
Nandini Jayakrishna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3383.