A group that promotes separation of church and state filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city of Rancho Cucamonga after a billboard on Route 66 that read “Imagine No Religion” was taken down and destroyed.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing the city because it says Redevelopment Director Linda Daniels, who is also named in the suit, contacted the billboard company telling it of the numerous complaints the city had received regarding the billboard and asked if the company could do anything.
“It does appear that the city was engaging in this officious intervention and has violated our free speech and our establishment clause rights,” said foundation co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “They used their intimidation powers against the billboard company, I believe.”
The billboard, which bore a stained-glass motif and the Wisconsin-based group’s name and Web address, went up around Nov. 13 and was taken down a week later, Gaylor said.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, seeks compensatory and punitive damages from Rancho Cucamonga.
The foundation contemplated suing the billboard firm, General Outdoor Co., which violated a two-month contract. The group, however, said it didn’t want to antagonize billboard companies. The foundation is more focused on state involvement in religion, Gaylor said.
“It’s much more serious for the government to censor than for private entities to censor,” she said.
General Outdoor has since refunded the foundation’s money.
The lawsuit’s claim that the city of Rancho Cucamonga intervened in the billboard matter is based on what Daniels told Daily Bulletin reporter Wendy Leung. In an article published on Nov. 20., Daniels was quoted as saying, “We contacted the sign company and asked if there was a way to get it removed.”
Daniels was also quoted as saying the city had received 90 complaints about the billboard and added, “We didn’t say they had to (take it down), but they respected the concerns of residents.”
Daniels could not be reached for comment, but Tranda Drumwright, housing programs manager, denied that the city asked the company to remove the billboard. Drumwright did confirm that someone from the city informed the company of the more than 50 complaints they received from residents.
“The city doesn’t have control over what the billboard company puts up or takes down,” she said.
A woman who answered the phone at General Outdoor on Wednesday said the company had no comment.
Gaylor said it was inappropriate even if the city had only told the company about the complaints.
“Because there was no ordinance violated, it didn’t involve city business,” she said. “They were contacting them to chill our speech.”
The group has displayed billboards with similar messages in 11 states, and although none had ever been taken down, some billboard companies have refused to put up the billboards because of concern over controversy, Gaylor said.