Update: Preston Smith used the back of FFRF’s winter solstice banner, which had been spray-painted by vandals, to make his point about free speech. The banner was posted during the last week of the year next to Preston’s resuscitated pentagram, which had also been vandalized repeatedly.
A Freedom From Religion Foundation banner has been stolen from a Florida public park.
This is the second time in the last week or so that someone has targeted the group's freethinking banners at this particular location. Barely a day after it was put up at Boca Raton's Sanborn Square Park to counter a life-sized nativity scene, the nontheistic organization's Winter Solstice banner was spray-painted and defaced. And now a thief has filched the replacement sign.
FFRF's original banner commemorated two important dates that are observed in December. The real reason for the holiday season is a natural event — the Winter Solstice — that falls on Dec. 21 this year. And the Bill of Rights — the document that is the basis of our freedoms — came into being on Dec. 15, 1791.
FFRF's replacement banner, put up almost immediately after the vandalism, read: "At this Season of the Winter Solstice LET REASON PREVAIL. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds."
The Foundation is offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators responsible.
"This is a disgraceful expression of intolerance toward dissenting ideas," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "People need to show respect for minority viewpoints, however unpopular."
Theft of this nature would normally be considered petit theft of the first degree under Florida law, punishable by imprisonment for up to one year and a fine of up to $1,000. However, because the actions were motivated by prejudice against atheists, under the state's hate crime statute the crime may be reclassified as a felony of the third degree, punishable by up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to $5,000.
With Sanborn Square Park zoned as a free speech area, FFRF Lifetime Member Preston Smith worked with the city of Boca Raton for several months to gain approval for "equal time" displays. FFRF contributed the banners to further its mission of the separation of state and church. A local Catholic Church has been placing a nativity display in the park for years without incident.
"If governmental bodies create public forums for religion, there has to be 'room at the inn' for dissenting or minority religious views as well," Gaylor adds.
To test the parameters of the public forum for religious views during the holiday season, Smith also placed a 300-pound red wooden pentagram with an image of Baphomet as the centerpiece. The pentagram was vandalized along with the initial FFRF banner. This time, a message, "In God We Trust," was placed on to the pentagram.
FFRF is asking members to help protect our freethought displays throughout the country by making a pledge to FFRF's Resurrection Pledge Drive. They are only asked to fulfill their pledge each time one of FFRF's December displays are stolen or destroyed.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national state/church watchdog representing nearly 25,000 atheists and agnostics around the country, including more than 1,200 in Florida and a chapter in the state, the Central Florida Freethought Community.