A national group of atheists and agnostics erected a billboard celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth just outside Grand Junction this week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation announced Tuesday. The town landed the “Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief” billboard — which also commemorates the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species — because Grand Junction rejected a proposal by a local atheist to proclaim a day honoring the father of evolution, FFRF said in a release.
“Charles Darwin gets a bad rap in America, and we want to counter that,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, in a statement. “It’s an intellectual blot on our country that more than 50 percent of Americans reject evolution. The Darwin bicentennial is a chance to celebrate reality, to move our nation forward, to return to the Enlightenment. “
While the city of Grand Junction is officially ignoring Darwin’s 200th birthday on Thursday, the Mesa County Commission read a proclamation honoring the scientist at its Monday meeting, according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
“By honoring this great man, you also honor yourselves,” said “avowed atheist” Earle Mullen, the Daily Sentinel reported. Mullen, who is president of the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers, had asked the same from the city to no avail.
It’s not the first time FFRF and associated local atheist groups have tangled with Grand Junction and Mesa County officials.
Last summer the Western Colorado Atheists challenged the longstanding practice of starting City Council meetings with a prayer, leading Grand Junction leaders to drop the invocation on the advice of an attorney.
In November Gaylor wrote a letter demanding county commissioners do the same:
Prayers are unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive. Calling upon Board members and citizens to rise and pray (even silently) is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular county government. Town Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time.
Denver attorney Robert Tiernan, on behalf of FFRF, in May demanded Mesa County drop a requirement that marriage license applicants “state an oath to the ‘everliving God’ ” before they could wed. In response, county officials sent out an e-mail telling employees, “No oath is required to be given” (although “Cousin marriage is legally acceptable in the State of CO,” the deputy clerk helpfully advises).
The Wisconsin-based FFRF, which claims 800 members in Colorado, made waves in Colorado Springs in December when it bought “Imagine No Religion” billboards as part of a national campaign.
The group of atheists, agnostics and skeptics also installed “Praise Darwin” billboards in Dayton, Tenn., and Dover, Pa., “homes of the most notorious classroom battles over the teaching of evolution,” according to a statement. Dayton was home to the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” and Dover made headlines a few years ago when the local school board required the teaching of “intelligent design” in biology classes, a policy dismissed by a judge as “breathtaking inanity.”
This week Whitehall, Ohio, whose mayor has proclaimed America is a “Christian nation” but won’t proclaim “Darwin Day,” gets a billboard too, FFRF announced.
“We’d love to take our pro-Darwin message around the country during this Year of Darwin, especially where the Darwin vs. Dogma debate still rages,” Gaylor said in a statement.