Lexington police said Thursday they would investigate the disappearance of a controversial billboard message that denounced homosexuality and abortion.
The message on a billboard on New Circle Road near Leestown Road appeared last week and cited Bible passages beneath the statements "Homosexuality is an abomination" and "Abortion is murder."
The vinyl sign, which listed a phone number for Bluegrass Church of Christ in Scott County, was missing Thursday, leaving a blank billboard. Police contacted the church and took a theft report, spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said.
"They told us that it indeed had been stolen," Roberts said. The sign was to have been up "for the course of a year, and so when it was gone after a week, it was suspicious."
Detectives will begin working on the case Friday, Roberts said. In addition to theft, potential charges could include criminal mischief.
Dan Moody, 72, a member of Bluegrass Church of Christ, said church officials were disappointed that the sign being stolen but "not necessarily surprised. But we're surprised they could get it so easily and so quickly.
"We're very disappointed with that and would like to get our sign back up and see if something can be done to prevent that from happening again."
In an interview with the Herald-Leader Thursday afternoon, Moody said that the church does not have a pastor but that male members rotate preaching and teaching. He said the 10-year-old congregation does not have its own building, meeting instead in members' homes or a motel. Moody would not say how many people are members of the church.
He said that the church spent $7,700 for the year's billboard rental and that it would cost about $700 to have the vinyl sign replaced. Moody wouldn't identify the company that rented the sign to the church because he didn't want the firm to be the target of harassment.
The church has paid for four other billboard messages along Interstate 75 in Georgia, he said; no vandalism was reported with those.
Moody said the church "fully intends" to replace the message.
Joshua Koch, president of the Kentucky Equality Federation, an organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and that has pushed for same-sex marriage in Kentucky, said Thursday that he was glad the message was removed.
"This whole incident has revealed the importance of bridging the gap between some portion of the Lexington religious community and the LGBT community," Koch said.
"Hopefully in the future that will not be a recurring issue. Honestly, Lexington is one of the friendlier cities in the region toward equality, and I certainly hope that trend continues."
Koch said in a statement last week that, although the federation respected the right to free speech, the billboard message subjected Lexington drivers "to an offensive and divisive message."
Although the message is gone from the billboard, a sign described as a replica has surfaced at a local bar and on social media sites.
On Thursday, a picture of a defaced version of the sign was posted on the Facebook page of Dronex Inc., which identifies itself as "a collective of creative dissidents working to challenge our visual landscapes to empower the people who occupy them." The sign appeared to have red devils painted over the original message.
Also, on Twitter, a user with the handle name @DronexInc sent a picture of that artwork at 9 p.m. Wednesday with the caption: "The devil will make work of idle hands."
The street artist who uses the identity of Dronex could not be reached for comment.
Andy Shea, the owner of Trust Lounge, said Thursday morning that a "replica of the billboard" had been displayed Wednesday night at the downtown Lexington bar. He said the piece was part of an "end of the world" theme party in which artists are invited to display their work.
Shea said the replica was part of a freedom-of-speech display.
Shea, who also is the general manager of the Lexington Legends, agreed to let the Herald-Leader see the artwork Thursday morning.
However, shortly after police announced it would investigate, Shea said the artwork resembling the billboard was no longer at the bar.
He said crews cleaned up after Wednesday's party, and all the artwork, including the replica, was removed.
About 15 people had posted on Dronex Inc.'s Facebook page, congratulating the artist for "getting the big story."
The controversial billboard message has been a topic of discussion on the Facebook page for nearly a week.
On Saturday, a user named Erik Roby posted a link to a WLEX-18 story about the billboard and said, "Think maybe a drone ought to deface this billboard and stand tall?"
On Sunday, Dronex Inc. posted a reply that said, "What billboard?"
On Thursday morning, Dronex Inc. posted: "Death from above / Love from below" — a post that had 22 likes by Thursday afternoon.
Under that post, a user named RustandBone Antiques posted: "Is the billboard for sale? Well done."
Moody, the church member, said threatening phone calls increased in the week that the sign was up. "Some are just real vulgar. Some ... say something like 'I've thought about finding out where you are and blowing this church up,'" he said.
But sometimes the phone calls from people who identify themselves as gay are "decent discussions," Moody said. "We're cordial with each other. Not agreeing but having a cordial discussion back and forth. Matter of fact, we've had calls from homosexuals saying, 'I didn't know that was in the Bible. I thank you for opening my eyes.' We've had that message more than once."
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305.Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.