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Attempted burning of billboard ratchets up Pitman feud

PITMAN A South Jersey billboard proclaiming "Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia" was torched Tuesday night by two men who fled in a pickup truck after only charring the sign's steel support beams.

PITMAN A South Jersey billboard proclaiming "Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia" was torched Tuesday night by two men who fled in a pickup truck after only charring the sign's steel support beams.

The billboard, erected as a counterpoint to a "Keep Christ in Christmas" banner in downtown Pitman, refers to the ancient pagan celebration of the winter solstice, held in mid-December to honor the Roman god Saturn.

The incendiary incident is only the latest to be sparked by the billboard, which was paid for by a national group of atheists. According to town officials, many Pitman residents lost their holiday cheer when they woke up Friday morning to see the message plastered at the intersection of two heavily traveled roads.

Several protesters descended on the billboard over the weekend. A man dressed in a full red Santa suit stood sentry for hours in the cold, holding a placard that referenced "Obamass." On Sunday, a family of four attempted to shroud the sign with a picture of Jesus before they were shooed away by police.

Town officials followed the weekend protests on Facebook. But the attempt to burn down the sign ratcheted up their concerns.

"It has gone too far this time," Mayor Russ Johnson said. "It's absolutely out of control."

A "Keep Christ in Christmas" banner has hung over Broadway in the center of the business district during the holiday season for more than 40 years, Johnson said.

Since 2011, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has asked to have the banner removed or have Pitman put up a similar banner for nonbelievers.

"All we wanted was equal time and equal prominence," foundation spokesman Andrew Seidel said. "Otherwise, they're violating the Constitution."

Pitman's mayor and town council repeatedly rebuffed the foundation, Seidel said.

"So rather than sue this town, we decided to take a different tack and put up a billboard," he said. The foundation leased the Clear Channel-owned sign that stands near the intersection of Holly Avenue and Lambs Road.

Pitman residents were livid, Johnson said.

"That billboard was put up to mock the 'Christ in Christmas' banner," Johnson said. "It was said the same way, 'Keep Saturn in Saturnalia.' That's what has people upset."

He added the banner was not a constitutional violation because it hangs on two private buildings and crosses a county roadway. The space for the banner, he said, is used by 10 Pitman nonprofits to "advertise for chicken barbecues, carnivals, craft shows, everything. But they don't seem to get that."

An off-duty police officer witnessed the latest assault on the sign Tuesday about 11:45 p.m., Chief Robert Zimmerman said. Two men pulled up in a silver and blue Ford 150 pickup truck with a ladder rack. They poured gas around the supports, set it ablaze, and quickly fled.

"They were not successful," Zimmerman said. "The posts are steel and didn't ignite at all."

Zimmerman, who described the event as "intolerable," said an investigation is underway. If caught, the men will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Johnson echoed Zimmerman.

"We will not tolerate anyone who tries to deface it," he said. "There will be beefed up patrols in that area."

Seidel said the attempt to burn the sign constitutes a hate crime under New Jersey statutes.

"It was an attempt to intimidate people on the basis of their religion, a case of bias intimidation," he said, pointing out that Sunday was the 222d anniversary of the First Amendment, which guarantees all Americans the freedoms of religion and speech.

The foundation on Wednesday put up a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the two suspects. Anyone with information is asked to call 608-256-8900.