Atheist billboard removed from church property

Freedom From Religion Foundation

A billboard featuring a cheerful student saying, “I can be good without God,” was too much for the delicate sensibilities of the Rev. Waymon Malone, pastor of Christ Cathedral Church in Columbus, Ohio. Late last week, Malone insisted that a local billboard company remove the message from a billboard inadvertently placed on church-owned land.

The billboard was subsequently relocated.

I have to say I am disappointed with the reaction of Rev. Malone for at least two reasons.  First, as a Christian, I believe my worldview is true.  As such, my view can compete in the market place of ideas and withstand scrutiny and examination.  From my perspective, Atheists can advertise all they want.

But secondly, and I think more importantly, if the billboard is located on church property, they receive revenue (rent) from Clear Channel, the owner of the billboard.  Unless it is a condition of the rental agreement that the church has the right to disapprove content, they should have no right to make demands that the FFRF message be removed.

Clear Channel (CC) has a right to make money from their advertising.  FFRF paid a fee to CC in return to have their message displayed on the sign.  Of course their message is by nature offensive (I use that term loosely.  Christians have a tendency to be too thin-skinned) to Christians, but that is irrelevant.

Business is business.  The church likely has no qualms making that deposit each month.  I believe once the church decides to rent to an advertiser, they have no say in how that advertiser runs their business, just as the landlord of the church building (if the church does not own outright the land and building) has no say as to what gets preached from the pulpit.

FFRF should have stood their ground.  Rev. Malone should be a bit more thick-skinned, and teach his flock to be as well.  If Rev. Malone is afraid of losing members to atheism because of a billboard, it is a poor reflection on the strength of his message; and is evidence he has not prepared his flock to counter the objections of the Atheist movement.


  1. Agreed. He should use it as an educational tool for his church. So few pastors equip their members to respond to these objections. It really isn’t that hard — they are the same old lines trotted out over and over.

  2. Just because there apparently is no clause in the contract that the church can disapprove content does not make the pastor’s actions so terrible. He made a firm request. He did not break the law.

    His request was reasonable in my opinion, but I do agree that it is solely the decision of the billboard company whether they move the ad or not.

    • Dave, I ultimately agree with you. The Pastor certainly has the right to request the billboard be removed. But something tells me it was more than a mere request. I think CC and FFRF capitulated so they wouldn’t appear to be the unreasonable ones bullying the church. I don’t think people ought to be bullied in that way. The sign wasn’t offensive, it’s not like it was an add for a strip club.

  3. Dan Trabue says:

    Agreed. Two other thoughts, though…

    1. If it were up to me, my church wouldn’t have a billboard – what a commercialistic eyesore!
    2. If we did have a billboard, we’d probably want to have some limits on what could and couldn’t be posted on it. Not that I would vote for nixing this particular ad, but it would seem prudent to have some limits built in.

    Or, as I suggested at first, not have a giant ugly commercial sign on your property in the first place.

    • I think the pastor had a right to request that the billboard be removed, and I am glad that FFRF was “good enough”(without God, I might add!) to not make this into an issue. It really does demonstrate the spirit of the advertisement was true.

      I’m of the opinion that advertisements ought not to have any limits outside of pornography, hate, and mature graphic imagery, you know, stuff we wouldn’t want our children exposed to until they are equipped to deal with it. I live in a Country that has the dubious distinction of banning billboards that advertise cigarettes and alcohol, something I consider to be idiotic and misguided.

      I think that property owners should be able to negotiate what can and cannot be advertised on their property, but certainly in a third party contract with Clear Channel, these things must be established at the outset of the contract.

  4. Not sure I agree, or if I do agree, I’m closer to what Dan suggests. There is no effort here to suppress the billboard altogether — simply to relocate it. And as Dan said, if a church is going to make the dubious decision to sport commercial billboards on its property, then some content limitations are prudent. Would it be unreasonable for the church to object to a billboard advertising the strip joint or the abortion clinic down the road or a same-sex chat line? I’m not saying any of these advertised activities should be condemned per se — just suggesting that perhaps a church might justifiably wish these promotions located elsewhere. Similarly, if not *more* so, with atheism — the ideologically jugular assault on the core reason the church exists.

    Yes, perhaps the church could be clever and sport its own counter-billboard and thereby engage in some constructive marketplace-of-ideas jostling. But they’re not *required* to. I think you’re confusing very important First Amendment values that come into play when *government* seeks to suppress messages versus private rights of association and messaging. In the former case, yes, the best response to “offensive” speech is more speech, not suppression of speech. In the latter case, when there is no threat of suppressing the speech, it is simply a matter of freedom to choose to associate with a particular message or not.

    I sometimes think we expect the thickest skin from Christians. Would we be having this discussion if a mosque objected to a billboard on its own property promoting a bar or depicting Mohammed? If a synagogue objected to a billboard on its own property promoting a bacon-cheeseburger special or a diatribe against circumcision? If a Hindu temple objected to a billboard on its own property advertising a slaughterhouse or praising Allah as the one true God? No. We would expect rudimentary sensitivity.

    I’m reminded of the Ground Zero mosque/community center controversy. There, as well, there has never been any question about the “legality” of the mosque — yet people have tried to make it a “First Amendment” issue that doesn’t exist. It has always been simply a question of respect and sensitivity.

    Please, relocate your message — is never itself a disturbing request. It shouldn’t be confused with more profound controversies that seek the suppression of the message or the hateful demonization of the message-promoters.

    • Personally, I would be having the discussion if it were a Muslim or Jewish issue. The church chose to enter the commercial marketplace. After all it is a billboard company, they will put on it whatever message is paid for.

      I think I could see if it were an ad for abortion or strip clubs because those are inherent moral issues. This particular sign was about ideas. But even if the sign was an ad for abortion or strip clubs, I think–as Neil said–it presents an opportunity to evangelize, and it should not be run away from.

      These issues–abortion, strip clubs, atheism, don’t go away just because a big sign depicting them isn’t hanging over your head. I do think Christians (as a whole) have a tendency to shelter themselves from outside influences. They do tend to run from confronting big issues and just worry about themselves, and that needs to stop.

      *there was very good reason to oppose the Cordoba House project 51.

  5. rautakyy says:

    Hahaha! This was a good one, John. I think the atheists who promote these signs are not so much trying to “convert” people into atheism, but simply to raise questions and conversation about the issues like evangelism and its relation to commercialism. In this particular incident they truly managed to do that.

    From an outside perspective, I would say Neil brought up one of the biggest issues here, which is if the christians should use such an incident as a tool to shelter their world view from such “outside influence” in the future, or should they confront the actual questions raised by such an add about the morals of the commercial society in general, you suggest John Barron Jr.

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