Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton: Atheists’ free speech “unfortunate”

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FFRF "Nothing Fails Like Prayer" banner on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre
FFRF “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre

The Times Leader recently published an article titled “W-B Council asked about shootings, after hours club and banner on Public Square” concerning, at least in part, a Wilkes-Barre city council meeting in which the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner I — with the help of the FFRF — had placed atop Public Square. A citizen suggested the banner be taken down and the mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Tom Leighton, had quite an interesting response.

Following is the relevant part of the article which mentions the FFRF “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner:

James Gallagher wanted to know about the legality of putting a banner that read “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” on display on Public Square. Gallagher, who often addresses council, said he supports free speech. “But that banner is a shot at the Christian and Catholic religions,” he said.

He suggested that it be taken down. “It’s not a good character to have that flying in our downtown, especially when we start off our council meeting by having a prayer,” Gallagher said.

The mayor responded by telling Gallagher that people of faith, such as him, Gallagher and council, shouldn’t let it offend them. “We live in a free country; unfortunately everybody has the rights to whatever what they want to say,” Leighton said.

Justin Vacula paid the city $50 to hang the banner supplied by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Vacula, who described himself as an atheist, said the banner was done as a response at the National Day of Prayer and Circle the Square with Prayer events held on the Square earlier this month.

Gallagher, a self-professed supporter of free speech, appears only to be a supporter of free speech he agrees with, Why ought “but” follow a statement of support of free speech? Supporters of free speech recognize that people, when exercising their free speech, will share multitudes perspectives others will disagree with. Supporters of free speech ought to tolerate, at least in the legal sense, speech which they may disagree with.

In the case of the FFRF “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner, since pro-religious messages are allowed, anti-religious messages are also allowed. The “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner is a response to, as the article notes, the National Day of Prayer [and a banner which had commemorated it]. My response was to respond with speech I disagreed with by voicing speech I agree with. The banner indeed is a shot at Christian religions…and the National Day of Prayer is a shot at the Establishment Clause.

What does it mean for the banner to be, as Gallagher notes, “not a good character?” Why ought Christian perspectives, as is being implied, of “good character” while non-Christian perspectives are “not a good character?” Rather than banning messages because, as it seems, a majority disagrees with the message, promoting and allowing for more free speech is a proper response. If Gallagher wants a banner of “good character,” on his appraisal, he ought to take $50 and a banner to City Hall and have it erected on Public Square – just as I did.

…and why are the city council meetings opening with prayer? Interesting…

Mayor Tom Leighton c/o The Citizen's Voice/Warren Ruda
Mayor Tom Leighton
c/o The Citizen’s Voice/Warren Ruda

Mayor Leighton, responding to Gallagher, uses quite an interesting word in his discussion of free speech; he says “unfortunately” people have the right to express their opinions when responding to questions surrounding the FFRF “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner. Would Mayor Leighton say, if the topic being discussed were a Christian banner, it was “unfortunate” for people to promote Christian messages on Public Square?

The message from Gallagher and Leighton is clear: messages from atheists, although they are permitted by the city of Wilkes-Barre, are simply not welcome. Atheists sharing their views on Public Square is “unfortunate” while Christians advertising their messages is appropriate and even welcome.

This may be, as some may say, ‘Christian privileging’ in action; perspectives of Christians are fine, welcome, and expected, but messages from atheists are unwelcome, “unfortunate,” and should be made illegal. Rather than welcoming all speech — from Christians and atheists — Mayor Leighton considers atheists advertising on Public Square “unfortunate” and Gallagher thinks messages — at least those from atheists — which disagree with his particular point of view should be made illegal.

Perhaps Gallagher and Mayor Leighton should consider a radical third perspective – not allowing pro-religious or anti-religious messages to appear on government property so that government, even if space is permitted for citizens to share their perspectives on religion, remains neutral in matters of religion.

As always, feel free to leave comments below. Feel free too, to add comments on the Times Leader article which, at the time of release of this reflection, has 63 comments. Also considering adding your voice to the original article concerning the FFRF “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner which currently has 473 comments.

See Mayor Thomas Leighton’s comments in a video format:

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