Billboards in Colorado and North Carolina paid for by American Atheists are causing controversy.
The billboards feature Santa Claus and the message: "Go ahead and skip church! Just be good for goodness' sake. Happy Holidays!"
"We want people to know that going to church has absolutely nothing to do with being a good person," American Atheists president David Silverman said, according to a Dec. 7 press release on the organization's website.
"The things that are most important during the holiday season—spending time with loved ones, charity, and being merry—have nothing to do with religion."
However, some find the billboards offensive, KRDO reports.
"It's terrible, especially this time of year," local resident Bonnie Miller said. "I don't think everyone has to go to church, but I'm a believer, and I just don't like that whole message."
"I think it's really terrible," Vanessa Holdridge, another resident, said. "Personally, my family is strictly Catholic; I was raised like that. I like the 'happy holidays' part; that's OK, but we should keep Christ in Christmas."
Randy Gotovich, director of American Atheists in Colorado, doesn't want people to take the message the wrong way.
"I can understand people's response, thinking this [billboard] is telling you not to go to church, and it's not; that wasn't the intent," Gotovich said.
"We're trying to reach out to non-believers, specifically, and let them know that it's OK to celebrate Christmas without treating it like a religious holiday," he added.
The group targets areas known for having large religious populations.
“We always do this in areas where we think our message may not be heard as often,” Nick Fish, national program director for American Atheists, told WCNC. “So we try to go to places where they’re extremely religious or there’s some sort of connection to evangelical Christianity.”
"It is important for these folks who are on the fence about their beliefs to know that they can take that first big step and leave church," Fish told KRDO. "There are tens of millions of atheists in this country. We're everywhere. And we don't need church or gods to tell us how to be good people."
The billboard follows the organization's tradition of posting non-religious messages every holiday season.
“Last year’s billboard showed a child writing a letter to Santa, telling him that all she wanted for Christmas was to skip church,” Silverman said. "This year, Santa wrote back."
The billboards will run through the end of December.