LAKELAND — Maureen Browne isn’t someone who normally broadcasts her opinions through yard signs.

When she learned about placards bearing the phrase “Hate Has No Home Here,” she liked the message — but at first decided against getting one for her Lakeland lawn. But Browne’s mind changed as she reflected on the atmosphere of the 2016 presidential election, then in full swing.

“With all the election stuff going on last year at this time, I just felt there was so much negativity and there was so much divide among everyone, there were tensions,” she said. “Everything on news was so hyped and people were being polarized into their right or left and it was exhausting.”

Browne decided the philosophy expressed by the signs matched her own. She acquired a placard from St. David’s Episcopal Church in Lakeland and planted it in her front yard at the corner of Lake Hollingsworth Drive and Belvedere Street.

The small sign, blue on one side and red on the other, includes a heart symbol containing stars and stripes reflecting the American flag. The five-word phrase is repeated in small script in five other languages: Arabic, Urdu, Korean, Hebrew and Spanish.

Browne isn’t the only local resident to display one of the mass-produced signs.

The Rev. Robert Moses, the church’s rector, said St. David’s has made three orders of the signs since last fall. Many parishioners have acquired one, and others have been picked up by people who don’t attend the church.

The signs are an international phenomenon that began as the idea of a half-dozen friends in a Chicago neighborhood. Hate Has No Home Here has become a nonprofit organization and has distributed “easily tens of thousands” of placards, spokeswoman Carmen Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said the North Park neighborhood is an exceptionally diverse community in terms of ethnicity, race, nationality, religion and age. Students at a local school speak more than 40 languages, she said.

Message spreads

The enclave also has a history of social activism. Rodriguez said residents previously displayed ribbons on their front stoops to show support for Muslims. And after the Pulse massacre in Orlando, many posted rainbow symbols on homes and businesses to support sexual minorities.

“So this was just an iteration of kind of the same thing,” Rodriguez said by phone. “There had been a rise in tensions. There had been some comments and conversation that was starting to get noticed and was worrisome. So it wasn’t like this one big thing happened and everybody freaked out; it was just this uptick.”

Hate Has No Home Here describes itself as non-political, and Rodriguez stresses that the group has no political affiliations. She acknowledges, though, that the idea emerged in the late stages of last year’s presidential campaign, when Republican front-runner Donald Trump was calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country.

“I mean, I think you can’t escape that that was the season,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not walking away from that. But he wasn’t the only person running for president.”

Rodriguez said two children came up with the five-word phrase. The additional languages reflected ones spoken by residents of the neighborhood.

The contingent launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover the costs of producing the first batch of the signs for neighborhood residents. Not long after that, a resident who had moved to Colorado got in touch to say, “Hey, did you guys know your sign is all over Facebook?”

Soon, the neighborhood association’s website crashed after being overwhelmed by traffic.

The sign’s creators formed a nonprofit association and made a separate website for the project (www.hatehasnohome.org). Yard signs, car magnets and window posters can be ordered from the site, which also gives the option of downloading the image for local printing.

A map on the group’s site shows locations to which the project has spread — virtually every state as well as Canada, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Egypt, Jordan, Sweden, Holland, Pakistan, South Korea and Australia. Different versions of the yard sign are now available in combinations of more than 50 languages.

Not just politics

The group’s nonpolitical claims notwithstanding, the signs have proved especially popular in more liberal cities. Katie Worthington, president and CEO of the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, said she saw many on display during recent trips to Gainesville and Austin, Texas.

Moses said he assumed the signs emerged at least partly in reaction to Trump’s campaign call for a Muslim ban. But he said he doesn’t view the message as overtly political.

“It wasn’t just (Trump), and I think we framed it that it’s not about the presidency or about any particular candidate, but it’s about trying to reflect our ethos as Christians and how we are called to live within a place of love, free of fear, with hope, and really renounce the kind of hatred we heard and saw then and now,” Moses said.

Browne, 63, acknowledges she was not a Trump supporter in the last election. But she said she has never been especially political.

“People have asked me what it (the sign) means,” she said, “and I said, ‘I’m just tired of this negativity everywhere,’ and I truly believe in treating people as you would want to be treated — the good, old golden rule.”

Her husband, Dr. Kevin Browne, a Lakeland cardiologist, supports his wife’s views, though he let her to do the talking on the subject.

Maureen Browne, a retired teacher at St. Joseph Academy, has taught classes in Spanish and English as a second language. She has a “Coexist” sticker on her vehicle, a design that uses various religious and cultural symbols to spell out the word.

Browne is Catholic and said she normally attends St. Joseph Church but sometimes goes to St. David’s Episcopal. During one of those visits, she learned about the signs.

“I have not had any negative (responses) about the sign,” she said, “because when people have asked me what it was I’ve said, ‘I think it’s trying to communicate that we all should get along,’ and who can argue with that?”

Peace and Jesus

A few streets to the south, a “Hate Has No Home Here’ sign stands in the front yard of James and Eleanor Richardson on Morningside Drive.

James Richardson, 84, said he learned about the project from his daughter, Sheri Longshore, a Lakeland Christian School graduate who now lives in Springfield, Va. When the Richardsons visited their daughter last Christmas, she had one planted in her lawn.

James Richardson said he liked the message, and his daughter helped him order a sign online.

Richardson, a retired insurance agent, doesn’t fit the liberal stereotype. He attends Southside Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church. He and his wife have bright red “Jesus” stickers on their vehicles, and Richardson said he has given out 20,000 of the decals in the past three decades.

“I don’t like the word ‘liberal,’ mainly because of what it implies,” said Richardson, a genial man who seasons most of his sentences with a smile or a laugh. “I don’t consider myself a liberal, and I don’t consider myself a conservative. I like to think that if you do what’s right, that’s what matters.”

Even so, Richardson hints at a political influence behind his affinity for the sign's message.

“I think there’s just too much emphasis coming from the top on race and hatred, and I just want people to know we don’t hate Muslims and we don’t hate Hispanics and we don’t hate Puerto Ricans,” he said. “We don’t hate anybody.”

Asked what he meant by “from the top,” Richardson smiled and replied, “You know who I’m talking about.”

“It seems to me that a lot of people are trying to divide the country,” he said. “You don’t make America great again by hating different denominations or different religions or different different colors or people who don’t think like you think. That’s not the way to make America great.”

Richardson said his yard sign has sparked only one negative reaction, that from someone who objected for "a religious reason.”

Call for unity

Another anti-hate sign can be found on the lawn of Jeff Lake and his wife, Julie Asher, who live at the corner of Edgewood Drive and Woodland Hills Avenue. The couple attend St. David’s Episcopal Church and acquired the placard about six months ago.

“Are we a bunch of peacenik hippies, like back in the ’60s? No, that’s not it at all,” Lake said. “Jesus said to forgive and forgive and forgive. It’s the spread of peace and love in the world.”

Lake, a Navy veteran active in community service, said he and Asher are not displaying the sign to make any political statements.

“Trying to put labels on people bothers me,” said Lake, 66, a retired electrical engineer. “It’s got nothing to do with my political bent. I consider myself a middle-of-the-road person politically, and I’m going to vote my Christian conscience and do what my conscience tells me is right.”

The couple said their sign hasn't provoked any negative reactions.

“If there was less hate in the world, less mistrust, we could get past our divisions and lock hands together and go together for common good,” Lake said. “That needs to happen, no matter what your political bent is, whether you agree with the administration or don’t agree with the administration.”

At least one local business displays a “Hate Has No Home Here” poster. Ellen Simms, owner of Two Hens & a Hound on South Kentucky, put one in the window of her downtown Lakeland framing and gift shop about a year ago.

Simms, a warden at St. David’s Episcopal, said the discord of the 2016 election, along with what she perceived as nasty rhetoric in discussions of the Confederate statue in Munn Park, influenced her to get her sign. She said an incident not long after that of apparent hostility toward the Muslim owners of a nearby business, Urban Appeal, reinforced her feeling that the sign was needed..

“It just seemed like the current attitude is almost like it’s OK to hate again, and that’s not acceptable,” said Simms, 60. “So that’s why I decided it was going in the window as part of the permanent display.”

Simms is politically liberal and makes it clear she disagrees with many of Trump’s policies. She said the sign project seemed “a reaction to the reaction to Trump’s campaign and election.”

She suggested that the election seemed to embolden some Americans to be more public in disparaging others for their race, ethnicity or religion.

“I don’t think it (the sign) will cause anybody to rethink their attitude,” Simms said. “What it might cause is somebody who shares that attitude to also put it in their window, so to speak, to speak up and say, ‘No, hate and bigotry are not acceptable.’ But it’s not going to change somebody who has decided they don’t like a certain class of person.”

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@directgates.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

Correction: This story incorrectly said Hate Has No Home Here signs are overseen by a nonprofit organization. The project is directed by the Hollywood-North Park Community Association, which is a nonprofit.