LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Standing atop an approximately 8-foot-high ladder, Evan Clark tugged at a sign tightly nailed to a utility pole on the intersection of Echo Park and Bellevue avenues, just beyond the 101 freeway ramps.
The sign quoted John 14:6, and as Clark spun and pulled it to loosen it from the pole, a man in a car shouted, “The way. The truth. The life!,” quoting the words from the Bible verse emblazoned on the placard Clark was trying to take down. The man, Clark said, likely assumed he was placing the sign, 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 that. 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 and occasionally take down illegally placed religious material on public streets and overpasses around the city of Los Angeles and neighborhoods in the county. They’re a subset of the LA-based Atheists United, a nonprofit that’s been in the city for nearly 40 years and that seeks to “empower people to express secular values and promote separation of government and religion.”
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The idea for the street pirates first emerged as a joke during an Atheists United meeting where members bantered about what to do with religious signage they encountered across the city. Calling it “religious rubbish removal,” the alliteration inspired the Atheist Street Pirates. That led to Clark creating a public Google map database where they upload photos and locations of the signage they encounter during their commutes. The map currently shows about 70 signs across LA County, including material taken down by the pirates or others. They’ve been officially active since 2021.
If signs are “illegally marooned, our pirates will report or plunder,” Atheists United declares on its website.
Since 2019, Clark, who identifies as an atheist and humanist, has served as the executive director for Atheists United. He sees the organization as a space to build community for atheists. “The question of whether God exists can be left to the theologians and philosophers,” he said. Atheists United hosts a “recovering from religion” support group and an addiction recovery program that’s an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous. The group also holds a monthly food bank and recently took a stargazing trip to Death Valley.
“Just because you don’t have a belief in God doesn’t mean you should lose access to community,” said Clark, 33. “We’re going to go at it uniquely because we live in a Christian society and we happen to not be believers in God.”
That includes their latest initiative to clear city streets of religious propaganda.
Street pirates don’t mind paid billboards or signage on church property since that’s within separation of church and state, Clark said. It’s the explicitly religious signs on public land that they take issue with. There’s a difference, Clark notes, between people standing on a highway overpass holding a sign and posters left behind as public nuisance.
It’s unknown where these signs come from, whether they are part of organized church efforts or individuals doing this on their own, but Atheist Street Pirates has collected about 30 signs that range in size and design.
Some banners are several feet wide with the words “TRUST JESUS.” Others are bright yellow and declare “REPENT … or Hell” or “Jesus is coming!” Then there are signs with stencil letters that read “JESUS IS COMING R U READY” and “Ask Jesus for Mercy.” Instead of throwing the signs away, the group is seeking creative ways, possibly an art exhibit, “to show the scope of the signage to the general public.”
To Clark, it’s not about getting “into an arms race over religious signage.” If that were the case, they’d place atheism signs to counter religious posters. The point, Clark said, is “to reinforce our commitment to a secular society.” Most of the signs they’ve documented proselytize a specific religion, and he said, it’s almost always Christianity, essentially becoming “free religious marketing for one religion on our highways.”
The greater Los Angeles area is home to residents who represent a wide range of faiths: Catholics, Pentecostals, Jews, Buddhists, Mormons, Scientologists, Self-Realization Fellowship members, Hindus and Muslims. And religion in Southern California, wrote a group of University of Southern California sociologists and anthropologists, is being reinvented “as religious ‘nones’ create new forms of purposeful community.”
“We are not finding a spiritual wasteland but, rather, a wild, wild West of religion,” they wrote in the 2016 article.
Clark said he’s yet to encounter religious signage about Islam, Judaism or Hinduism.
“How unique would that be?” Clark said, adding that if he were to see an atheist sign, he’d take it down. ”It would be hypocritical not to.”
“I don’t know how Jewish people, or Muslims, or Hindus, or atheists are supposed to feel welcome in Los Angeles if the only religious signage they see are Christian signs on highways,” he added. “If the city is not going to take those signs down, we feel like it’s our responsibility to take action.”
Signs and banners, regardless of their content, are not allowed on California state highway bridges, fences and poles, 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 concern,” Comeaux said, adding that Caltrans removes signage regardless of the content of the messages.
In LA, signs on the public right-of-way are illegal and city officials will remove any that are reported to the bureau of street services, a division of the public works department, a city official said.
A woman taking calls to the 311 Call Center, which connects residents to non-emergency city services, said people shouldn’t be putting up or taking down signs on the public-right-of-way. The city’s Investigation and Enforcement Division takes care of requests to remove illegal signs.
Illegal signs, according to the city 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 expose linemen to 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 faiths that are practiced here.”
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Arlene Ríos, vice president of the Atheists United’s board of directors, finds religious signage on highway overpasses annoying, particularly because “here in Los Angeles, usually we’re stuck in traffic and we spend a lot of time in our cars.” She said people shouldn’t feel “guilted” into believing in Jesus.
“Sometimes I wonder, when I see the ‘Jesus is the Answer’ (sign), ‘Jesus is the answer to what? What Jesus?’” said Ríos, who helps organize meetups with other nonreligious Latinos in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley.
On a recent Saturday, Clark and Christine Jones — president of Atheists United’s board of directors — met at the group’s LA office inside the regional building of the Center for Inquiry — a nonprofit that defends science and critical thinking in examining religion — to plan the driving route to take down signs they’ve been tracking.
The duo made their first stop at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado Street, where they easily yanked two signs quoting John 14:6 that were attached to a pole, no ladder necessary.
From there, they drove about a mile to take down the sign nailed to the utility pole near the 101 freeway and then drove toward East LA to remove a sign declaring “Jesus is Eternal Life” from an overpass bridge. Along the way, they removed and logged other unexpected religious signage they encountered.
The “Jesus is Eternal Life” sign on the freeway bridge was trickier to remove since it was wedged between two fences. Clark and Jones slid the sign downward until they were able to yank it out. It was their last sign for the day, collecting a handful of signs in about two hours.
“We preserve public spaces as secular so that they’re welcome to all,” Clark said. “The only way for us to truly have freedom of religion is to also have freedom from religion.”