Damage to a controversial sign in Eastern Passage, N.S. has fired up an old debate.

The anti-abortion sign at a busy intersection was targeted with spray-paint overnight -- a rare act of vandalism that was actually applauded by some, who found the message offensive to begin with.

Others say the paint was an attack on free speech and their religious beliefs.

“Well, I think it's kind of disgraceful that somebody would deface somebody else's property,” said Ashley Inness.

The long-standing anti-abortion sign says “Defend life” and shows drawings of a mother with a child and a fetus. Late Thursday or early Friday, someone had painted the word “women” over the word “life” and had left some rusty coat hangers strewn on the ground at the base of the sign.

Although it’s been targeted before, none of this sits well with Mort Naugle, the man who owns the land.

“They’re coming in on private property, and if we ever catch who they are, I’ll take them to court,” said Naugle.

“I was totally shocked when I heard it this morning,” said Jim MacDonald of the Knights of Columbus.

At a meeting in Truro, the executive of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic men’s group who erected the sign a quarter-century ago, say they’re starting to feel singled out.

“I’m very distraught over it, because of the other things that happened in the HRM -- the desecration to the church and the cemetery,” said MacDonald.

By early afternoon, clean-up of the site was well underway.

Barbara Adams is the Progressive Conservative MLA for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage and says she’s unabashedly pro-choice. She finds herself in the awkward situation of standing up for free speech and property rights.

“I can say I defend the rights of women, but I also defend the rights of somebody to have a sign on their lawn that might be offensive to somebody else,” Adams said.

Even as the clean-up continued, debate broke out on the sidewalk.

“Perhaps it doesn’t need to be quite as visible on the four-way stop,” said passerby Patti MacAulay.

“But it’s legally their right to have it there,” said Adams.

Neighbour John Edwards says he’s not bothered by the sign.

“If it was another religion or anything like that, it wouldn't bother me – that’s their religion,” Edwards said. “I think it’s great.”

The last of the paint was gone by mid-afternoon and the sign bore a completely different message from the one that greeted drivers for the morning rush hour.

With files from CTV Atlantic’s Bruce Frisko.