Maybe you have seen it. It is a green and white, 6 ft by 12 ft sign along Interstate 25 on the way to Colorado Springs. It is the same green and white as all the other official highway signs indicating upcoming rest stops or city centers, only this sign is letting you know that Focus on the Family is ahead. It reads simply, “Focus on the Family Welcome Center Next Exit.”
Focus on the Family is a non-profit religious organization headquartered in Colorado Springs. They claim to be an organization “dedicated to helping families thrive,” however, their political activism opposes abortion, gay rights, and comprehensive sex education. They also have have discriminatory hiring practices and will not consider hiring Catholic applicants as they are the “wrong flavor” of Christian. Whether or not you agree with the organization’s mission and purpose, however, is of no consequence. The majority of Colorado Springs residents actually support Focus on the Family’s mission. I personally oppose the majority of Focus on the Family’s core beliefs. But, even if my personal beliefs allied perfectly with this organization, I still do not think taxpayers should be funding this highway sign.
While Colorado Springs city taxpayers are struggling to keep street lights on because of budget shortfalls, taxpayers (myself included) are also paying to build and maintain this highway sign. “... the 81-acre campus in Colorado Springs is a bona fide tourist attraction, drawing up to 250,000 visitors a year.” Yes, the ministry is a popular tourist attraction in Colorado Springs, but does that mean that I should be bearing the cost of advertising that tourist attraction? With an annual operating budget of 120 Million, Focus on the Family can and should afford to pay for their own sign and not rely on state funds.
In my most recent drive to Colorado Springs, I kept my eye out for other highway signs similar to Focus on the Family’s sign and found none. I saw plenty of signs advertising other private tourist attractions, but these signs were different. They came in the form of billboards that were offset from the official highway signs. Even though there are countless tourist attractions in the Pike’s Peak region, the sign for Focus on the Family is the only one in the same style as the official signs. Not even the Flying W Ranch, another religious-based tourist attraction, had a publicly funded sign along the interstate.
You do not see highway signs for other churches or faith-based organizations, so what makes Focus on the Family different? In the state of Colorado, private organizations can apply for highway signs by proving that they are a tourist attraction. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), “Privately owned businesses wishing to participate must derive the major portion of their income from visitors not residing in the immediate area.” Focus on the Family certainly qualifies with its large number of out of state visitors per CDOT’s rules, but I think the rules should be changed. Not only are private religious organizations getting free advertising, they are also getting free assistance with the development of these advertisements. After an organization gets approval for a “Tourist Oriented Directional Sign” they then also have access to “creative assistance” in the form of “designing of the business logo” at no charge.
As an atheist, I am most bothered by the lack of separation of church and state with regards to this sign. The establishment clause of the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” By publicly funding advertisements for a private religious organization are we not “establishing” a religion by putting an official government voice behind a specific religious group? The sign is not the only blurred line between church and state. Even if their sign were not publicly funded, Focus on the Family also receives government perks through their tax-exempt status. Not only do I want my publicly funded highway signs to remain secular, I also want my publicly funded community colleges, universities, libraries, and post offices to remain secular too.
This sign has even been included on a “Top 100 - You know you live in Colorado Springs when...” list under “You’ve never thought twice about why Focus on the Family has its own highway sign.” Why does Focus on the Family have its own highway sign? Sometimes it is hard to notice the absurdity in the status quo but it is time to stop providing free advertising to private religious organizations.