HARRISBURG, PA. (RNS)
The billboard is down, but the issue’s not gone.
A billboard erected in a racially diverse neighborhood in Harrisburg featured an African slave with the biblical quote, “Slaves, obey your masters.” It lasted less than a day before someone tore it down.
Now, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is investigating and is meeting with both the atheists who sponsored it and leaders of the NAACP who found it offensive and racially charged.
The atheists behind the sign said they were trying to draw attention to the state House’s recent designation of 2012 as “The Year of the Bible” – an action by lawmakers that the atheists have called offensive.
But there were concerns that erecting such a billboard is playing with fire.
“If this had been Detroit, there would have been a riot,” said Aaron Selvey of Harrisburg, who visited the billboard site March 7, the day after the sign was put up and later torn down.
“We don’t want things to escalate into violence or community tension, so we try to address situations like that right away,” added Shannon Powers, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. “We would not recommend tearing down because it could lead to escalation. It hasn’t, and we’re tremendously thankful for that.”
The billboard was quickly replaced with an ad for the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.
Ernest Perce V, the Pennsylvania state director of American Atheists, said he won’t press charges against whoever damaged the billboard he designed, and said he, too, is a victim after receiving death threats.
“We hope people can see just a little bit of discrimination we get,” said Perce. Perce said he will proceed with a 25-billboard statewide campaign against the Bible and the legislation.