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Holidays are times where traditions and one of the biggest American traditions this time of year is arguing about religion. Some years a community is torn over a managed manger on the lawn in front of City Hall or a missing Menorah. But this year the season's biggest religious controversy seems to be in an unlikely place, the Lincoln Tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York.
NPR's Robert Smith reports.
ROBERT SMITH: For the last three weeks, New Jersey commuters entering the Lincoln Tunnel have had to sit in traffic and contemplate this sight - a billboard with a picture of a nativity scene, the whole thing - star, three wise men, and the message: You know it's a myth. Brought to you by the American Atheists.
Drivers can mull over this challenge as they spend a few minutes of purgatory under the Hudson River. When they get out in New York City, they encounter another billboard, this one courtesy of the Catholic League. It's the same nativity scene, but this time with a retort: You know it's real.
Most people don't even notice the billboards. I found one lost tourist, Tom Price, who did, but he wasn't impressed.
Mr. TOM PRICE: Well, I think it's almost sort of pathetic, really.
SMITH: Pathetic. Why pathetic?
Mr. PRICE: Two people have different views, it shouldn't really be a problem. Well, they've got better things to worry about than that, haven't they?
SMITH: Well, it depends on your goal.
The group American Atheists got precisely what it wanted: publicity.
Mr. DAVID SILVERMAN (President, American Atheists): It was good business.
SMITH: David Silverman is the president of American Atheists.
Mr. SILVERMAN: The more we argue, the more people think, the more people talk, the more conversation, it's all better for atheism.
SMITH: The billboard only cost around $20,000, but the moment it went up, the media was drawn to it like the Star of Bethlehem. It got Silverman booked on talk shows and attacked in newspaper columns. And when the Catholics put up their billboard, Silverman was...
Mr. SILVERMAN: Ecstatic.
SMITH: All of a sudden, Silverman was on cable news debating representatives from the Catholic League over whether or not there is a god.
So why does an organization representing a world-wide church need to respond to a single billboard in Jersey? Jeff Field is with the Catholic League.
Mr. JEFF FIELD (Catholic League): This is the time of year that the secularists, these atheists, choose to assault our Christianity and our religion, so we decided that we're not going to sit by and let it happen.
SMITH: Well, you know they're trying to get your goat. Did you consider just turning the other cheek?
Mr. FIELD: Well, no. It's because even though it's made a lot of news throughout the country and, you know, the American Atheists have received a lot of attention from this, it has shown people that we are here to be on the front lines, and that, you know, they have somebody that they can put their trust in.
SMITH: Okay. So let's recap. The Atheists got weeks of free publicity. The Catholic League got to look tough. The media got their annual war on Christmas story. And though no one wants to talk about how much money this will help each organization raise, David Silverman from the atheists couldn't help but brag a little.
Mr. SILVERMAN: We're selling bumper sticker and shirts with the billboard on them on our website.
SMITH: Of course you are.
Mr. SILVERMAN: And people are buying it like crazy because they love it.
SMITH: So it's a religious war with no losers. Except perhaps for the people who could have used the money that went into billboards.
Under the Catholic one, at the exit to the Lincoln Tunnel, Fred Morrison panhandles for money. He sleeps in Penn Station, but he spends his days underneath this nativity scene, begging. What would he put on the billboard if he had a chance?
Mr. FRED MORRISON: I would say, to each his own, you, you figure it out yourself, you know.
SMITH: Do you think when people see this they're more likely to give you some money - to be generous?
Mr. MORRISON: Nah. People don't have the spirit like they used to have. They don't really have that spirit no more.
SMITH: A lot of Catholics and atheists could probably agree on that message.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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