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The American Atheists says it had a tough time buying billboards for its Salt Lake City convention, and that goes to show what's wrong with the Beehive State.

"What this really communicates to us is the stranglehold that the Mormon church has on the community in Utah," said Dave Muscato, American Atheists public relations director. "It reminds me of the Mafia in Italy. They don't even have to make threats. People just know that they're supposed to be afraid."

The outspoken group's 40th annual convention will run April 17-20 at the downtown Hilton and is expected to draw about 1,000 people, including keynote speaker and NFL punter Chris Kluwe. AA officials say they called nine Utah companies looking for three to five billboards to promote September's early-bird rates, but after repeated attempts, only two called them back.

Muscato said Reagan Outdoor Advertising told him it would pass, and YESCO, after first rejecting a play on the church's "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign, then nixed three other submissions that didn't mention Mormons but instead depicted a family, students and an elderly couple with a red arrow pointing to them from the word "Atheists."

"The reason that we're coming to Salt Lake City in the first place is that so many atheists feel oppressed by the preponderance of the Mormon church," said AA President Dave Silverman, who acknowledges they've experienced backlash elsewhere but added it's never been unanimous. "The church controls much more of public life than it has the right to do. This [rejection] seems to support that."

In an email to Muscato, a YESCO employee wrote that his ad director signed off on AA's resubmissions but that the company's sales director and president declined the contract because "it was deemed to be too controversial for our Salt Lake market."

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, YESCO wrote: "We believe that our medium is an effective outlet for free speech. However, we balance that with a strong commitment to adhere to community standards and to ensure that the messages we advertise are not offensive toward any business, group or individual. … In rare instances, we reject advertisements that we find to be misleading, deceptive or offensive to the moral standards of the community."

Reagan Outdoor Advertising didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sugar House resident Ed Vella first heard Silverman complain about his trouble finding billboard space on an online episode of "The Atheist Experience." Vella, who plans to attend the conference with his wife but is not a member of any Utah atheist organizations, said he's frustrated that controversies like this give Utah a black eye among out-of-state liberals. Last year, he says he was driving southbound on Interstate 15 near Brigham City when he saw an anti-evolution billboard that he considers more offensive than what AA pitched. "I think it's irresponsible to put that up," he said.

Muscato said he understands the business considerations in this market — where other companies might boycott you for posting an edgy religious-themed ad. But that's discrimination, he said, and it's just bad capitalism to deny a client. American Atheists says it eventually settled on a deal with Denver-based CBS Outdoor, which had just one billboard available in Salt Lake and which AA will lease beginning Dec. 23. Muscato said he'd like it to spoof the "I'm a Mormon" campaign — with a Christmas twist — because "I think it's a good design, as far as the joke."

Convention signups are at about 150 right now, Silverman said, and he feels they would have double or triple that number with exposure from the billboards.

Racy billboards are a promotional staple for American Atheists, which has previously targeted the LDS Church with billboards that were deemed inappropriate. During the 2012 presidential campaign, the group posted a "mobile billboard" on a truck and on websites that read: "No Blacks Allowed. No Gays Allowed. Shame on Mormonism." Another billboard that was taken down before the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., read "God Is A Space Alien. Baptizes Dead People. Big Money, Big Bigotry."

But "nothing is immune from critique," Muscato said. "It's really a religious idea at its core that certain things are off-limits from criticism."

Twitter: @matthew_piper