Why I object to government-led prayers at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings

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"Man Objects To Prayers Before City Council Meetings" c/o WNEP TV-16
“Man Objects To Prayers Before City Council Meetings” c/o WNEP TV-16

I addressed Wilkes-Barre City Council during the public comment section of their June 13, 2013 meeting voicing my opposition to prayer offered by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle at council meetings. I urged council members — speaking on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society — to cease their divisive, inappropriate, coercive, exclusionary, unnecessary, and unwelcome religious rituals.

This piece will explain why I object to prayers at council meetings, explore the backstory of my objection, and encourage people to join me in opposing council prayer or otherwise becoming active in church/state activism. My exchanges with council, including other videos from the meeting, are included.

In 2009, in my first act of secular activism, I objected to stand-alone religious displays — provided by, maintained by, and erected by local government — on the lawn of the Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. In 2011, I protested a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania aiming to support school voucher legislation which would send Pennsylvanians’ taxpayer dollars to religious schools. Following the rally, I was coerced to stand for prayer by an armed guard when I had remained seated for prayer in a Pennsylvania legislative session.

In March of 2012, I objected to “God Bless America” messages on Lackawanna County buses. I objected to Pennsylvania House of Representatives members declaring 2012 to be “The Year of the Bible” and was named as a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in a legal complaint. A bus ad I proposed in early 2012, with the message “Atheists.” was denied by a county transit authority on grounds that it was an “attack on religion,” “controversial,” and an “attempt to start debate on controversial issues.”

In addition to declaring 2012 as “The Year of the Bible,” Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced legislation to declare October 2012 as “Prayer Month,” 2012 as “The Year of Religious Diversity,” remove and/or not allow anonymity from anonymous objectors to issues involving the Establishment Clause, declare April of 2013 as “National Fast Day,” and declare a week in May of 2013 “American Religious History Week.”

More recently, in December of 2012, as a response to religious symbols on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre, I had worked with the FFRF to place a holiday freethought banner on public property. In May of 2013, I protested an event on Public Square commemorating the National Day of Prayer and later, again working with the FFRF, placed a “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner atop Public Square in response to the event and a banner promoting the National Day of Prayer.

All of my above experiences have contributed to motivate me to oppose the enmeshing of religion and government, but more recent events have led me to specifically challenge prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings.

Mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Thomas Leighton — in response to a citizen’s comment at a May 27, 2013 City Council meeting questioning the banner’s placement on Public Square — said,

We live in a free country. Unfortunately everyone has the rights to say whatever what they want to say” (see 3:46 in video)

after mentioning that he and council members are “people of faith” (see 3:32 in video).

The mayor had also noted “sometimes our hands are tied” when talking about the banner, mentioning “this is one of those cases” (see 3:50 in video).

I had attended a June 11, 2013 Wilkes-Barre City Council work session which began with Judeo-Christian prayer led by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle who — following the Pledge of Allegiance which included the phrase “under God” — said,

Almighty and everlasting God who presides over all things in Heaven and Earth come and preside over these deliberations so that those who make the decisions may be guided by your wisdom.”

Although no public comment section was afforded to audience members, I waited after the meeting for Mayor Leighton so I could introduce myself and ask questions concerning the government-led prayer. Mayor Leighton — following eager, cordial, and lengthy responses to questions from members of the audience following the meeting — addressed my request to ask a question. I identified myself and handed the mayor a business card. I then started recording, beginning to ask a question concerning government-lead prayer at meetings.

Rather than allowing me to finish my question and be afforded with a response (as was the case for others in the audience who had waited for the meeting to conclude), Mayor Leighton said “I don’t wanna go there,” slammed down my business card, and walked away. Unfortunately, I do not have a video of this incident, but I do have a sound clip embedded below in which you can hear remarks from Mayor Leighton. I did not expect such unprofessional decorum from a mayor who — regardless of citizens’ religious beliefs or lack thereof — should treat meeting attendees equally and model professionalism.

I then attended the June 13, 2013 City Council meeting with a prepared statement and questions for City Council. Again, I was, against my conscience, subjected to Judeo-Christian prayer by City Council during the meeting following the pledge including “under God.”

During the public comment session, I addressed council with my objections to prayer and my plea for council to cease prayer at future meetings.

I said,

My name is Justin Vacula. I am the co-organizer and spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society – a local community group of atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers with meetings in Wilkes-Barre, PA. I am also a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation – the largest group of freethinkers in the United States. I speak on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society.

I address city council today to object to prayer which was delivered at the June 1 work meeting [and at tonight’s meeting]. Prayer at public government meetings is divisive, inappropriate, coercive, exclusionary, unnecessary, and an unwelcome religious impositions on meeting attendees. Government officials should not be leading or scheduling prayer at government functions.

Luzerne County and Wilkes-Barre are regions including Muslims, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, and members of other religious or non-religious identities and should not be subjected to prayer, a religious ritual, led by government officials and endorsed by government, against their will. Religion, according to the Pennsylvania state constitution, is a personal matter which should be up to individuals’ consciences. Government should not takes sides on matters of religion or religious ritual.”

I urge council to cease prayer at future meetings. End this divisive, inappropriate, coercive, exclusionary, unnecessary, and unwelcome religious imposition.

I then posed various questions to council following my opening remarks attempting to gauge how prayers are selected, who reads prayers, who may offer prayers, what the purpose of prayer at meetings is, why council invokes a Judeo-Christian deity, and whether council would tolerate opening remarks saying the Christian god does not exist.

Council Chairperson Bill Barrett, responding to my objections, said,

“We will look into your concerns as to the prayer at the beginning of the meetings and we will research it and come to a decision […] There’s a couple of things at work here. Probably tradition is one. I know for as long as I have been here there has been an open prayer. I think you’re probably the first person in my recollection who has made an issue of it. Most people do not have any concerns about it. It has been something that was probably going on long before myself as well. We will do a little bit of legal research and historical research and make a decision.”

After Barrett’s comment, I asked Mayor Leighton if he could clarify his comment about atheists’ free speech being unfortunate. Mayor Leighton responded saying,

“I believe it was taken out of context. The individual that was here was upset about the way people say things. I said it’s unfortunate people say things. We shouldn’t let them upset you if I don’t believe in what you believe. I never once meant anything about freedom of speech.”

I don’t believe the mayor’s comment was taken out of context by any means.

Following my comments, other notable portions of the meeting were captured [and uploaded on my Youtube channel]. Shawn Walker addressed the council in an extremely well-spoken professional manner concerning drug use and violence in Wilkes-Barre. Frank Sorick addressed council and was met with unprofessionalism from Mayor Leighton. A man shouted at council, levied egregious personal attacks which should not have been tolerated, violated expected decorum, was threatened with arrest, protested saying the only way he would leave was in handcuffs…and was met with unprofessionalism from Mayor Leighton.

Finally, a religious man, James Gallagher, said he would “continue to pray” “all the time” for me.

I objected to Wilkes-Barre City Council including prayer at governmental meetings and urged them to cease prayer at future meetings. I refuse to tolerate continued imposition of religion and religious beliefs — as I detailed above in this piece, a mere sample of issues mainly in Pennsylvania — into government. I refuse to tolerate religious individuals of a majority opinion being afforded special privileges while religious minorities and non-religious individuals are thrown under the bus – not permitted to advertise their existence or told that their speech is “unfortunate” while religious messages are not commented on and presumably welcomed by Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton who — in his governmental capacity — noted that he and members of council are persons of faith.

It is time once again to take a stand for the separation of church and state and fight back against religion and government becoming intertwined. I hope others — both non-religious and religious — join in my efforts whether they engage in activism of their own accord, support fellow activists, or join the ‘front lines’ at council meetings delivering addresses. Move away from the keyboards and become involved. If you do not want to take a public stand, consider working anonymously or semi-anonymously in support of public individuals. Consider engaging in church/state activism or supporting activists no matter where you live. Join a secular organization. Donate to a cause or organization you support.

Stay tuned for more updates — including commentary on published articles, news reports, and more — concerning this issue of government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings. If you are near the Northeastern Pennsylvania area, I encourage you to attend the July 11 council meeting held at the Wilkes-Barre town hall. Come with pre-prepared five minute statements — the maximum time allotted for public comment — stating your objections to prayer or whatever you deem appropriate and deliver your remarks to council. Speak up for those who may not wish to speak or otherwise are unable to. Make a public stand so a difference can be made.

As always, feel free to comment below.

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