The group American Atheists, Inc. is simultaneously outraged and bemused at a spate of attacks by a New York Republican state senator. The lawmaker is trying to organize a boycott of New York City’s Times Square while starting a petition to shut down a billboard erected there by American Atheists and to revoke the group’s nonprofit status.
In a conversation with Raw Story, American Atheists’ communication director Dave Muscato said that New York state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R) probably knows full well that everything he’s asking for is impossible, but that his real goal isn’t actually to do any of it.
“The petition, all of it, it’s a joke,” Muscato said. “I think he’s pretty clearly just farming for emails.”
Email “farming” is when a petitioner launches a political petition that they know is hopeless, but which they are using to gather the names and email addresses of people from whom they can later solicit donations. The practice is used by groups on both the right and left, but is typically considered to be poor form, a means of roping in the gullible by way of their idealism.
On his state legislative website, Sen. Lanza declared in all capital letters, “SENATOR ANDREW LANZA DENOUNCES AMERICAN ATHEISTS’ HATEFUL TIMES SQUARE ADVERTISEMENT SAYING ‘NOBODY’ NEEDS ‘CHRIST DURING CHRISTMAS’.”
In a statement on the site, Lanza lamented, “Just as millions of Americans are preparing to celebrate Christmas, this intolerant and hateful group deliberately ridicules the solemn beliefs of millions of New Yorkers.”
American Atheists and people like them, said Lanza, are going to cause another Holocaust.
“This is part of a continued ‘War on Christmas,’ Lanza said, “and also upon the belief and value system of millions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim people who have faith in God. Religious persecution of the kind that similarly lead to the Holocaust began with small evil baby steps of ridicule and hatred of the religious beliefs of others.”
Muscato scoffed, “This is pandering. He’s just puffing up his chest and saying, ‘Look at me, I’m a Christian and I’m so offended by this!'”
“We’re not hate speech,” Muscato said. “I think he just wants attention and to show off how ‘religious’ he is.”
Besides, he noted, this is exactly the sort of government interference in free speech that the U.S. Constitution prohibits in the First Amendment.
“We have a Constitutional right to freedom of speech,” Muscato said. “And this a direct violation of that, a government official trying to tell a nonprofit organization that because what we’re saying disagrees with his religion, it’s hate speech. I’m outraged that he even thinks this is a good idea.”
“Part of me wonders if he hasn’t read the Constitution,” he concluded, “or if he just doesn’t care.”
The group published an open letter in response to Lanza on Tuesday.
Earlier this month, American Atheists unveiled a billboard in Times Square that asked, “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody. Celebrate the true meaning of Xmas!” as the backdrop lit up with words like, “snow,” “music,” “family,” “fun” and “lights.”
In an accompanying press release, the group pointed out that early Christians grafted the celebration of Christ’s birth on to already existing pagan holidays.
“We all love this time of year. Christianity has been trying to claim ownership of the season for hundreds of years. But the winter solstice came first and so did its traditions. The season belongs to everybody,” said American Atheists’ president David Silverman.