LOS ANGELES (RNS) – Standing atop a ladder about 8 feet high, Evan Clark shot at a sign nailed firmly to a utility pole at the intersection of Echo Park and Bellevue avenues, just beyond the 101 freeway ramps.
The sign quoted John 14:6, and as Clark turned and tugged to detach it from the post, a man in a car shouted, “The way. The truth. The life ! quoting the words of the Bible verse inscribed on the sign Clark was trying to remove. The man, Clark said, likely assumed he was placing the panel, not removing it.
“People put a lot of passion behind these signs and their messages and ideas about Jesus and God,” Clark said. “I don’t like to be confrontational about any of this. I just wanted to do this as a casual thing to keep our streets secular.
Clark is part of the Atheist Street Pirates, a team of lookouts who track down and sometimes remove illegally placed religious material from public streets and overpasses around the city of Los Angeles and county neighborhoods. It is a subset of Los Angeles-based Atheists United, a nonprofit that has been in the city for nearly 40 years and seeks to “empower people to express values secularism and to promote the separation of government and religion”.
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The idea of street hijackers first emerged as a joke at an Atheists United meeting where members joked about what to do with the religious signs they encountered across town. Calling it “religious trash removal,” the alliteration inspired atheist street hacks. This led Clark to create a public Google Map database where they upload photos and locations of signage they encounter on their travels. The map currently shows about 70 signs across LA County, including material removed by hackers or others. They have been officially active since 2021.
If signs are “illegally abandoned, our hackers will report or loot,” Atheists United says on its website.
Since 2019, Clark, who identifies as an atheist and humanist, has served as executive director of Atheists United. He sees the organization as a space to build community for atheists. “The question of whether God exists can be left to theologians and philosophers,” he said. Atheists United hosts a “recovery from religion” support group and an addiction recovery program which is an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous. The group also runs a monthly food bank and recently took a stargazing trip to Death Valley.
“Just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean you should lose access to the community,” Clark, 33, said. “We’re only going to go there because we live in a Christian society and we happen to not be believers in God.
This includes their latest initiative to clean the city streets of religious propaganda.
Street hijackers don’t mind paid billboards or signage on church property because it sits within the separation of church and state, Clark said. It is the explicitly religious signs on public lands that they challenge. There is a difference, Clark notes, between people standing on a highway overpass holding a sign and posters left as a public nuisance.
It’s unclear where these signs came from, whether they were part of church-organized efforts or individuals doing it alone, but Atheist Street Pirates collected about 30 signs of varying sizes and designs.
Some banners are several feet wide with the words “TRUST JESUS”. Others are bright yellow and say “REPENT…or hell” or “Jesus is coming!” Then there are signs with stenciled letters that read “JESUS IS COMING RU READY” and “Ask Jesus for Mercy.” Instead of throwing away the signs, the group is looking for creative ways, perhaps an art exhibit, “to show the significance of signage to the general public.”
For Clark, it’s not about “engaging in an arms race against religious signage.” If so, they would put up atheism placards to counter the religious posters. The goal, Clark said, is to “strengthen our commitment to a secular society.” Most of the signs they documented proselytize a specific religion, and he said it’s almost always Christianity, essentially becoming “gratuitous religious marketing for a religion on our highways.”
The greater Los Angeles area is home to residents who represent a wide range of faiths: Catholic, Pentecostal, Jewish, Buddhist, Mormon, Scientologist, Self-Realization Fellowship, Hindu, and Muslim. And religion in Southern California, wrote a group of sociologists and anthropologists from the University of Southern California, is being reinvented “as religious ‘no’s create new forms of community useful”.
“We are not finding a spiritual wasteland but rather a wild, wild West of religion,” they wrote in the 2016 article.
Clark said he has yet to come across any religious signage about Islam, Judaism or Hinduism.
“How unique would that be? Clark said, adding that if he saw an atheist sign he would remove it. “It would be hypocritical not to.”
“I don’t know how Jews, Muslims, Hindus or atheists are supposed to feel welcome in Los Angeles if the only religious signs they see are Christian signs on the freeways,” he added. . “If the city does not remove these signs, we feel it is our responsibility to act.”
Signs and banners, regardless of content, are not permitted on bridges, fences and posts on California state highways, said Michael Comeaux, a public information officer with the California Department of Transportation. known as Caltrans.
“Such signs and banners could be a distraction to drivers, which would raise a safety issue,” Comeaux said, adding that Caltrans is removing signage regardless of the content of the messages.
In Los Angeles, signs on the public right-of-way are illegal and city officials will remove any posted to the Office of Street Services, a division of the Department of Public Works, a city official said.
A woman taking calls to the 311 call centre, which connects residents to non-emergency city services, said people should not put up or remove signs on the public right-of-way. The city’s Investigations and Enforcement Division handles requests to remove illegal signs.
Illegal signs, according to the city’s website, “create the same negative perception of a community as graffiti or other forms of vandalism.” Nails and tacks placed on utility poles to place illegal signs also put lineworkers at risk of serious injury, the city said.
When it comes to religion, the city is “very neutral”, the city official added. “Our city is multicultural and therefore there are many religions that are practiced here.”
Arlene Ríos, vice president of the board of directors of Atheists United, finds religious signage on overpasses annoying, not least because “here in Los Angeles, we’re usually stuck in traffic jams and we spend a lot of time in our cars”. She said people shouldn’t feel “guilty” for believing in Jesus.
“Sometimes I wonder, when I see the ‘Jesus is the answer’ (sign), ‘Jesus is the answer to what? What is Jesus? said Ríos, who helps organize get-togethers with other non-religious Latinos in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley.
On a recent Saturday, Clark and Christine Jones – chair of the board of directors of Atheists United – met at the group’s Los Angeles office in the regional building of the Center for Inquiry – a nonprofit organization that champions science and critical thinking in the examination of religion – to plan driving route to remove the signs they followed.
The duo made their first stop at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado Street, where they easily pulled up two signs quoting John 14:6 that were attached to a pole, no ladder needed.
From there, they drove about a mile to remove the sign nailed to the utility pole near the 101 freeway, then headed to East LA to remove a sign that said “Jesus is eternal life” from an upper deck. Along the way, they removed and recorded other unexpected religious signs they encountered.
The “Jesus is Eternal Life” sign on the highway bridge was more difficult to remove because it was wedged between two fences. Clark and Jones slid the panel down until they were able to remove it. It was their last sign of the day, gathering a handful of signs in about two hours.
“We preserve both public and secular spaces so that they are welcome for all,” Clark said. “The only way for us to truly have freedom of religion is to also have freedom of religion.”