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State Senator, Atheist Group Spar Over Times Square Sign

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- A New York State senator has called for the removal of a billboard that an atheist group has mounted in Times Square, which, in the group's words, argues that Christmas is "better without Christ."

But the atheist group responded days later by calling the lawmaker intolerant, and putting up another billboard in his own Staten Island district.

The 40-by-40 digital billboard uses motion graphics to display an animated message beginning with the words, "Who needs Christ during Christmas?" A hand crosses out the word "Christ," and the word "nobody" then appears the group American Atheists explained.

The display goes on to read, "Celebrate the true meaning of Xmas," followed by a series of what American Atheists called "cheery words" such as family, friends, charity, food, and snow.

But state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) did not find the billboard the slightest bit cheery. He called the billboard offensive, and an "expression of hatred."

"Just as millions of Americans are preparing to celebrate Christmas, the American Atheists organization has ridiculed the solemn beliefs of millions of New Yorkers," Lanza said in a statement.

Lanza said he did not take issue with whether anyone believes in God, but American Atheists' display expressed a "lack of decency, civility and kindness" toward those who do.

"It seems to me that this is part of a continued 'War on Christmas' and also upon the belief and value system of millions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim people who have faith in God," Lanza said in the statement. "Religious persecution of the kind that similarly led to the Holocaust began with small baby steps of ridicule and hatred of the religious beliefs of others."

Lanza has launched a petition calling for "the immediate withdrawal of this advertisement," which he said will be forwarded to the Mayor's Office, the City Council, the State Attorney General's office and the Times Square merchant community.

Lanza's statement was originally issued on Friday of last week. Six days later, American Atheists struck back and accused him of being the intolerant one.

"Senator Lanza seems to be unaware that there are millions of atheists right here in New York," American Atheists President David Silverman in a news release. "He accuses us of spewing religious hatred while he himself calls all atheists 'malicious' and 'hateful' for not believing in his god. We will not be silenced or smeared by a bigoted elected official, nor will we allow our members and the other tens of millions of American atheists to be slandered by a representative of our own government."

Noting that Lanza had earlier issued a tweet calling for a "boycott against the hateful Times Square ad," American Atheists mounted a new billboard on Wednesday in Lanza's district on Staten Island.

"Lanza had no problem calling for a boycott of Times Square because of our message," Silverman said in the release. "We stand behind our billboard and we want the people of Staten Island to know that they don't need religion to have a great Christmas, either. We are putting up this billboard as a challenge to Senator Lanza. Now the question is, was the senator posturing, or does he have the guts to call for a boycott in his own district?"

The group also issued a letter directly to Lanza this past Tuesday.

"You are petitioning, on your official government-hosted website, to suppress our Constitutional right to freedom of speech. This is truly an act that should frighten Americans," the group said in the letter, which was signed by Silverman. "Your abuse of your office to attempt to silence a minority group is not only un-American, it is the antithesis of the ideals upon which our nation was founded."

Lanza responded in turn with an amendment to his statement, emphasizing that his issue was not with atheists, but with the tone and content of the message.

"I defend the right not to believe as strongly as the right to have faith. I firmly believe, however, that neither should be used to demean the other," he wrote. "What we need is good will toward each other, and I hope this debate and my position has helped people focus upon that."

Lanza has not been the only prominent voice to take issue with the billboard. On his radio show earlier this week, Glenn Beck also characterized the billboard as hostile to people of faith.

"You have every right not to celebrate Christmas; not to believe in God, and I support you. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you in saying, 'I don't have to have a God.' That's good. That's fine. I disagree with you, but that's my business; that's what my conscience tells me. That's what I believe. What you believe is your business. And as long as you are neither picking my pocket or breaking my leg, I have no problem with that," Beck said on his program.

He continued: "But to do a campaign like this and to come out and pee all over somebody is not necessary. It's just not necessary. It speaks volumes of what you are. You're not somebody that can coexist with others."

American Atheists also planned for billboards near Penn Station.

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