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Billboards on Tampa Bay roads duel over existence of God

Two billboards, in Hillsborough County near Fowler Avenue and 17th Street and in Pinellas County near Ulmerton Road and U.S. 19, are the latest in a publicity blitz over religion. They are part of a national advertising campaign by the United Coalition of Reason.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Two billboards, in Hillsborough County near Fowler Avenue and 17th Street and in Pinellas County near Ulmerton Road and U.S. 19, are the latest in a publicity blitz over religion. They are part of a national advertising campaign by the United Coalition of Reason.

A group representing people who do not believe in God or any gods has revved up an awareness campaign in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

The United Coalition of Reason paid to have two billboards erected that feature a blue sky with clouds and the words: "Are you good without God? Millions are."

The move is the latest in an advertising blitz involving religion that has people talking.

Six months ago, a retired businessman paid $50,000 to rent 10 billboards in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties that denounce the separation of church and state.

The United Coalition of Reason is spending about $100,000 to blast its message on billboards, bus shelters and transit stations across the nation, said Fred Edwords, national director for the coalition.

In addition to the Tampa Bay area, ads have popped up in places like Seattle, San Diego and Iowa.

"People are saying, 'Geez, where have you been all my life? I didn't know you existed. I thought I was the only one who thought this way,' " Edwords said of the reaction.

Message for masses

Whether or not you believe in God, putting the topic in the public domain is noteworthy, said advertising expert Harold Vincent, an instructor at the University of South Florida's Zimmerman Advertising Program.

"Hallelujah, First Amendment," Vincent said. "I would hope that most people can at least appreciate how in a country such as ours that there is a forum for open debate and for people to share ideas with others."

Billboards are one of the last true mass-media vehicles and are effective because they are seen by more than a single demographic, Vincent said.

"There are 100-plus television stations, a plethora of Web sites. … With the large amount of media that is out there, it is very hard to draw a broad cross section of the general public," he said. Billboards are "one of the most highly effective mediums because it hits a geographically diverse target."

That means Christians see the billboards, too.

Activist Terry Kemple, whose public policy group was behind last year's 10 billboards calling the separation of church and state a "lie," criticized the Coalition of Reason as "not having very much reason."

"It flies in the face of rationality to believe that we can live in this complex world we live in and not have some master designer who created it," he said. But "we live in America. It's their privilege to put up inaccurate information if they choose to do that."

Signs stay up a month

The latest billboards have spurred debate, as expected, but the coalition said it created the advertisements mostly as a way to bring nonbelievers together.

The coalition's goal is to raise the visibility of its local societies, including here, where the Tampa Bay Coalition of Reason has just formed and is seeking members, Edwords said.

The national organization takes information from groups such as humanists, atheists and secularists, and brings it together in one place.

It offers the groups Web hosting and free public relations training while also funding publicity campaigns.

The two 14- by 48-foot billboards cost $7,600 for four weeks, Edwords said.

The messages went up Jan. 25 and will stay up for a month. More than 35,000 people a day are expected to see the sign on Fowler Avenue near 17th Street in Tampa and along Ulmerton Road just east of U.S. 19 near Largo, according to Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns the billboards.

One motorist who has seen the Fowler Avenue billboard is Yassel Quijano, a massage therapist from Town 'N Country who practices Wicca.

Quijano said people may not agree with the message, but that's what's great about living in a free country.

"People have the right to just express what they want, what they feel," Quijano said. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who are afraid of saying it. Someone had the courage to do something like that. For me, that's something I admire."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

Billboards on Tampa Bay roads duel over existence of God 02/07/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 8, 2010 2:57pm]

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