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Atheist billboard hits snag in Hasidic neighborhood

Arabic/English (top) and Hebrew/English (bottom) billboards with a message from American Atheists that are slated to be erected in heavily Jewish and heavily Muslim neighborhoods this week.

For American Atheists, Tuesday was meant to be a big day for getting out their godless message — with the unveiling of a billboard in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in New York City. But plans to erect the sign in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn were altered at the last minute when the owner of site refused access to the installers.

Kari Huus

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Written in Hebrew and English, the sign was to have read: "You know it’s a myth … and you have a choice." It is an advertisement for the upcoming "Reason Rally" in Washington, D.C., billed as the biggest atheist gathering in U.S. history, and for the American Atheists' convention immediately afterward.

It was also intended to urge non-believers to overcome their fears and "come out" in their heavily religious communities.

"We believe that (these) communities are teeming with atheists due to the emails we regularly receive," said American Atheists President Dave Silverman, a nonprofit that seeks civil rights for non-believers and absolute separation of church and state. "We have received a dozen emails from Hasidic Atheist Jews since we announced the billboards. … They feel totally alone. We want to tell them they are not alone."

Silverman was at the site with the advertising company to erect the giant sign atop a residential building.

But landlord Kenny Stier refused to allow workers from the advertising company Clear Channel into the building, said Silverman. He told The Brooklyn Paper that he believes powerful rabbis in the largely ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish area persuaded Stier to block the billboard.

"It has been very disconcerting to see that the traditional victims of religious bigotry have become the purveyors of religious bigotry," said Silverman, who was raised in the Jewish faith.

Stier could not immediately be reach for comment, but The Brooklyn Paper quoted him as saying, "I don’t want to get involved in this."

Williamsburg Rabbi David Niederman told the paper the sign is "a disgrace. ... The name of god is very holy to us and to the whole world."

Atheists bill big names for 'coming out' party in the capital

The atheist organization has already selected a new site along the Brooklyn-Queens expressway not far away, and will try again on Thursday to erect it there.

On Wednesday, American Atheists were slated to post another billboard to near the Islamic center of the heavily Muslim community in Paterson, N.J. — identical except written in Arabic and English. They have not received any blowback in that community, Silverman said.

"We’re not particularly disturbed about it,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations. "We believe it’s their First Amendment right to put them up. … Obviously they placed them to be provocative, but that’s also their right."

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