Atheists Adopt Section of Freeway Near Campus

El Vaquero Editor in Chief

Part I

Three men are picking up trash at the side of the freeway on a drizzling Saturday morning. One of them picks up a strip of nails discarded from a nail gun. “Someone’s lucky they didn’t drive over this,” he says.

They continue to work quietly and efficiently, knowing that they have four miles of road to cover before they are done for the day. They are volunteers, unpaid and largely unappreciated, performing a service for the community.

These three men — Steve Gage, Mark Rockoff, and Jon Nelson &#0151 are members of an organization that is, among other things, committed to protecting the environment for future generations.

They believe that everyone is entitled to equal rights; they support education, and the complete separation of church and state.
They believe that virtue is its own reward, and that people must accept responsibility for their actions.

They are opposed to bigotry and discrimination in all forms and encourage people to think for themselves.

The official membership of their organization is in the thousands, but millions of people worldwide also ascribe to these principles. They do not evangelize or attempt to convert people to their beliefs, but do try to make available information to any who is interested.

These guys differ from other belief-based organizations: they will never knock on your door on a Sunday morning, burn a cross in your front yard, beg for money wearing saffron robes, call you an infidel or even a sinner, prevent you from getting medical treatment, tell you that you must accept abuse from anybody, or wage a war against any group that doesn’t share their beliefs.
They might make converts cover their heads – with a hard hat – and wear a reflective orange vest, if they’re going to collect garbage on the highway. The name of their organization is Atheists United, and they maintain the Glendale Freeway (2) on either side of Mountain Avenue.

The California Adopt-A-Highway program alleviates some of Caltrans’ workload (saving taxpayers an estimated $14.5 million per year) and makes the freeways cleaner and safer. Groups that volunteer for this service pay a fee and are allowed to post the name of their organization on provided road signs, enhancing their public visibilty. The are also required to pick up trash at least twice a month.

Participants must wear protective garments (hard hats, vests and gloves) and are not allowed to work in the rain. It is still a dangerous undertaking. Certain death will greet any pedestrian hit by a car at freeway speeds.

So, what would motivate someone to make this sacrifice? “It keeps the sign up,” said Mark.

This particular sign has been vandalized repeatedly. People have tried to knock it over and have splattered it with paint. No other highway sign in the vicinity has been the target of this much abuse. Residents of the area are concerned enough to ask them about it. Is it the sign that is under attack or the United Atheists themselves.

The rejection of religious intolerance and persecution was the primary motivational factor for the foundation of the United States, and yet 300 plus years since the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, religious bigotry is stronger than ever.
The vandals have well-placed allies. No less a personage than former President George H.W. Bush had this to say, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” Filled with religious zeal, any crazy, violent, or hateful activity is immediately justified.

What is the worst trash? All three agree that cigarette butts are the worst (almost impossible to pick up, do not biodegrade) followed closely by packing peanuts. Glass and nails pose the most danger to motorists. Fast-food trash is pervasive.

Unexpected amounts of porn and condoms litter the side of the road and occasional road-kill rabbits and religious pamphlets add to the variety. At least 80 percent of highway trash is deliberately jettisoned from the car by the driver or passenger.
On that spring day, the three atheists workday was cut short by the weather; it started to pour. They finished cleaning the drains, so water would not collect on the onramp, and headed back for their cars.

Five large bags of trash had already been collected. When asked what they thought about the community they serve, they were thoughtful and circumspect _” many atheists, after all, describe themselves “secular humanists.” Can people just take responsibility for their actions in terms of not polluting our community with their trash and not polluting our spirituality with their prejudice? It may be that the testing ground is right here in Glendale.

Part II

Five men are picking up trash at the side on the freeway at the end of the summer. In Pennsylvania, evolution is again under attack; religious fundamentalists are hell-bent on removing science from the public school curriculum. The United Atheists clean the highway, as they have since 2001. Their stated goals are, as they have always been, to preserve the separation of church and state, The freeway maintenance program is not their only form of civic outreach, but it is the most visible to the community. “We would like the public to acknowledge atheism as a viewpoint with integrity that has merit and should be given a place at the table in the marketplace of ideas for solving the world’s problems,” says Steve Gage, the project’s spokesman.

The highway program is meant to attract like-minded people to the organization, to foster a sense of community among atheists, while at the same time demonstrating to the general public that atheists are a positive force in the community who care about the same things that most others do.

When asked what advice he would have for college students who identify themselves as atheists, agnostic, or just uncertain of their religious beliefs, Gage had this to say: “I would first congratulate them for going to college. College campuses not only provide textbook learning, but are also one of the few places where young people can be exposed to minority viewpoints, and ideas can be discussed without significant negative repercussions Atheists United has resources and incentives for students to start clubs or host freethought events at their campus.

Contact them at (323) 666-4258 or go to the Web site at

For more information about adopting a stretch of California’s highways, check out