My speech at 2012 PA State Atheist/Humanist Conference

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Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, one of the organizations which made the 2012 PA State Atheist/Humanist Conference a reality, recently uploaded my speech from the conference. Some parts of my speech were read from an essay I had written concerning separation of church and state issues in the state of Pennsylvania in which I have been directly involved with or otherwise impacted in some way.

I spoke about Pennsylvania’s ‘Year of the Bible’ legislation, sectarian governmental prayer in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, coercion of citizens who remain seated for governmental prayer, proposed school voucher programs for religious schools in Pennsylvania, my “Atheists.” bus ad which was rejected on grounds of being ‘controversial’ and ‘an attack on religion,’ and much more.

During the question and answer session, I spoke about handling conflict and how individuals who do not deal well with conflict can contribute to activism, roles people can play in the secular movement, religious school vouchers, styles of atheist activism, and the “Atheists.” bus ad.

Enjoy the speech and, as always, comment below!

Here is the text of the essay which informed this speech:

As a resident of Pennsylvania, it is quite apparent to me that the continual intersection between religion and government interferes with democracy and threatens the Establishment Clause. While religious belief injected into the workings of democracy in Pennsylvania is harmful, it seems especially harmful in an election year when pious politicians pander to religious constituents while lawmakers who might otherwise dissent in cases of governmental wrongs are afraid to dissent. Considering at least four recent Establishment Clause issues in Pennsylvania — legislation declaring 2012 to be “The Year of the Bible,” sectarian governmental prayer, coercion of citizens who dare to remain seated for governmental prayer, and intentions to fund religious schools with taxpayer monies — should convince Pennsylvanians to realize that they need separation of religion and government.

Pennsylvanian lawmakers have recently seemed to neglect section three of Pennsylvania’s state constitution which states, “All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences” and “no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.” A guideline such as this, if followed, would preserve a separation of church and state in Pennsylvania, but it has been ignored.

One particular piece of legislation that seems to be a clear example of religious pandering is the unanimously affirmed House Resolution No. 535, a ‘non-controversial resolution,’ which declared 2012 as “The Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania. Not only did the resolution inform Pennsylvanians of a “national need to study and apply the teachings” of the Bible, but it also included language of – when referring to the Bible – ‘holy scriptures,’ ‘the word of God,’ and noted that “renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people.” ‘The dictates of consciences,’ mentioned in Pennsylvania’s constitution, seem to be trampled upon because this resolution takes sides on theological issues and recommends actions — religious in nature — which Pennsylvanians should undertake.

Another obvious example of religion and government being a dangerous mix is the constant stream of unconstitutional sectarian governmental prayer during House of Representatives sessions. While some governmental prayers may be considered non-denominational, even though they seem to reference Judeo-Christian beliefs, many contain specific references to Christianity; Jesus Christ dying on a cross to save people from sin, Jesus Christ as a ‘Lord and Savior,’ the apostle Paul, ‘God in Heaven,’ and ‘the maker of Heaven and Earth’ are phrases expressed during governmental sessions.

Unconstitutional prayers also exist in a background of coercion directed toward citizens who dare to remain seated during prayer. Individuals, before entering the guest chambers, view a prominent sign which encourages people to stand for prayer. Before the prayer, the house speaker personally asks people to stand. On one occasion in which I had attended a House session, after being aware of requests to stand, I remained silently seated while taking notes in a tablet. An armed security officer had approached me and repeatedly asked me to stand to ‘show respect.’ Two requests — from the house speaker and a sign — were not enough.

Another insidious foray of Pennsylvanian lawmakers concerned a ‘school voucher’ program in which public monies — instead of going to public schools which must provide for children in Pennsylvania regardless of their religious upbringing, religious belief, or religious persuasion of parents — would fund private religious institutions which exist with a primary intention to indoctrinate impressionable minds, compel students to participate in school-led prayer, and teach young earth creationist religious doctrine instead of sound science. The ‘school voucher’ system, if passed, would have been an affront to the state constitution because lawmakers would have given preference to religious establishments – many of which would have been Christian institutions – and compel people to fund religious worship against their natural and indefeasible rights as mentioned in the state constitution.

When I had peacefully protested a rally – holding a sign which called for a separation of church and state — in which pious politicians assembled to urge lawmakers to vote in favor of the school voucher program, I was told — by one of the speakers State Senator Anthony Williams — that I should go back to my ‘community of privilege’ and send my children ‘to whichever school I wanted to whether they be atheist schools or not’. State Senator Williams, talking at me from his podium, became quite angry and said, “By the way, this is my rally, not yours” and “These are our dollars, not just yours. These are our children, not yours. These are our school systems, not yours and by the way, this has nothing to do with separation of church and state.”

In the case of the school voucher rally and the coercion I faced as a result of my remaining seated for governmental prayer, I was made to feel like a political outsider. A climate of divisiveness – pitting citizens against lawmakers acting in pious unconstitutional manners — was created in which I, as a citizen of Pennsylvania, while peacefully objecting to that which I saw as unconstitutional, was poorly treated. If lawmakers were to have remained neutral on matters of religion while acting in their official capacities to serve all citizens, there would have been no divisiveness.

Legislation declaring 2012 to be “The Year of the Bible,” unconstitutional governmental prayer, the coercion of citizens who remain seated for governmental prayer, and school voucher programs aiming to fund religion create a compelling case for freethinkers – and even many religious Pennsylvanians – to be concerned with matters of separation of church and state. Establishment Clause violations are always a problem, but they are especially grievous in election years because pandering pious politicians attempt to gain votes while lawmakers who otherwise would object to Establishment Clause violations may not because they fear losing support of constituents.

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