In brief

'No religion' billboard taken down

RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. — Complaints have led to the removal of an atheist group's "Imagine No Religion" billboard in this San Bernardino County city.

The General Outdoor sign company took down the Freedom From Religion Foundation billboard after the city said it received about 90 complaints and asked whether there was a way to remove it.

The Madison, Wis.-based foundation, which advocates separation of church and state, has billboards in eight states that include such messages as "Reasons Greetings" and "Beware of Dogma."

The foundation's co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said the billboard is meant to encourage a debate about religion by evoking lyrics from a John Lennon song.

"The city has no business suggesting our billboard be censored," Gaylor said. "They're not allowed to interfere over religious controversy."

The city's actions are "dangerously close" to censorship and a violation of the First Amendment, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition.

"A city government has no business trying to dictate or influence the content of an advertising image, particularly one that's political and controversial as this is simply because some people don't like it and complained about it," Scheer said.

The city's redevelopment director, Linda Daniels, said the city did not demand General Outdoor take down the sign, "but they respected the concerns of residents."

Mormon population in Utah shrinks

SALT LAKE CITY — The Mormon population of Utah continues to get smaller.

An Associated Press analysis of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints membership records used by state planning officials to develop population estimates shows that Mormons now make up 60.4 percent of the state's population. That's down from 60.7 percent last year.

The percentage has declined every year for nearly two decades and if the trend continues Mormons will make up less than half of Utah's population by 2030.

"The LDS population will still increase, but as a share of the total, that should continue to decline over time," said University of Utah demographer Pam Perlich. "What would cause that to reverse would be an economic collapse and the same people who moved here for jobs leave for jobs. ... But there's a slim-to-none chance that would ever happen."

In Salt Lake County, the state's most populous county and home to church headquarters, Mormons are barely holding onto their majority, making up 50.6 percent of the population.

In recent years, Utah has experienced a demographic shift as its economy thrived and increasing numbers of workers flocked to the state from other parts of the country and world.

"We're just going to bring a much more diverse population here," Perlich said. "People are not moving here for family reunions or culture alone. They're coming here for work."

Woman can keep 'BE GODS' plate

INDIANAPOLIS — The Bureau of Motor Vehicles has reversed an earlier ruling and decided that a woman may have a personalized license plate carrying the words "BE GODS."

The reversal came after Liz Ferris sued the BMV in federal court for refusing to issue a new plate carrying the same words she had on other plates for several years. Ferris contended in her lawsuit that the BMV was discriminating against her for expressing her beliefs.

The agency told Ferris that it prohibits vanity plates referring to race, religion, deity, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or political party or affiliation.

Her suit was filed the same day the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the state's "In God We Trust" license plate.

Ferris had the same plate on her car for eight or nine years but forgot to renew it on time for 2008. When she submitted a new personalized plate application, the BMV denied her request due to a recent policy change banning any references to religion or a deity on new personalized plates.

That policy took effect in November 2007, just after the renewal deadline passed for Ferris.

Commissioner Ron Stiver said in a statement released Tuesday that the BMV would give Ferris a new plate bearing her old message — which she intended to mean "Be God's" or "belong to God."

"After reviewing Ms. Ferris' request, it is clear that she attempted to reserve her PLP prior to November 6," Stiver wrote.

Church splits with denomination

PORTERSVILLE, Pa. — A western Pennsylvania presbytery has dismissed a church from the Presbyterian Church (USA) so it can join a more conservative coalition known as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The Beaver-Butler Presbytery includes 87 churches in two counties north and northwest of Pittsburgh. The 176-member Portersville Presbyterian Church about 30 miles north of the city voted 115-3 to leave the national mainline Protestant denomination and join the more conservative group.

After the vote, negotiators for the congregation and the presbytery were conciliatory.

"There is still one body, one church, one faith, one Lord Jesus Christ, the savior of us all," said the Rev. William Jamieson, a retired pastor who served on the presbytery commission. "Bless this church and bless this presbytery."

The presbytery has previously dismissed another church, but that is pending a court dispute over financial terms of the split.

Some conservative Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations are seeking to avoid property litigation by seeking dismissal into a sister Presbyterian denomination. Pittsburgh Presbytery has dismissed three churches, while Washington Presbytery is in civil litigation with one that voted to leave without permission.

State to design 'choose life' plates

PHOENIX — Now that an anti-abortion group has won a long legal fight, an Arizona commission is being ordered to meet by Jan. 23 and approve a special "choose life" license plate.

U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt set the deadline in an order that also requires the state to take all necessary steps for "timely production and issuance" of the new plate.

The judgment comes after the U.S. Supreme Court in October left in place a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of the Arizona Life Coalition.

The 9th Circuit said the state commission on license plates violated the group's constitutional right to free speech by turning down its application.

The plate envisioned by supporters would have drawings of the faces of two smiling children in an overall design based on Arizona's regular plate. The "choose life" slogan would appear twice.

While the case has been portrayed as being centered on the abortion issue, members of the Arizona Life Coalition have said they are speaking of adoption and other concerns, as well.

Other states offering "Choose Life" plates include South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee.

— The Associated Press