“Discontinue prayer at public meetings” LTE

580216_10151537993694327_1946310874_nA recent letter to the editor (LTE) I authored titled “Discontinue prayer at public meetings” was published in today’s edition of The Times Leader both online and in print.

This letter urges members of Wilkes-Barre City Council to discontinue their tradition of government-led prayer at public meetings, encourages locals to join me in opposition to prayer, and references a recent letter the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent to council which similarly urges a cessation of government-led prayer.

The text of my letter to the editor, slightly modified because of an error [the next council meeting is July 16, 2013 and not July 11], follows:

On June 13, 2013, I addressed Wilkes-Barre City Council objecting to government-led prayer and urging council to remove prayer from government meetings. I detailed why I object to governmental prayer in a follow-up written piece now available on justinvacula.com, was since featured in local media and was most recently backed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) who joined me in my dispute with Wilkes-Barre City Council.

FFRF’s three-page letter argues that government prayers are exclusionary, unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive while noting that council members may pray on their own time rather than during public meetings in which they lend power and prestige to religion in a governmental endorsement which excludes 19% of a nonreligious American population.

FFRF also states that “[t]he state of the law regarding the constitutionality of government-sponsored prayers is unstable,” affirms the secular character and founding of the United States, and notes Jesus’ exaltation — during his Sermon on the Mount address — “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. … when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father who is unseen” (Matthew 6:5-6).

The letter’s final paragraph reads, “The solution is simple: discontinue official, government prayers at your meetings. We urge you to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual. If government meetings must show reverence, let it be for our secular and godless Constitution, which enshrines the greatest American invention — the separation of state and church.”

I will once again address council in its next open meeting including public comment on July 16, 2013. I hope to see local residents at this meeting and encourage them, like me, to prepare five-minute remarks addressing council whether they defiantly continue prayer or remove it from the sessions.

Learn more about my objection to government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings. Visit the ‘council prayer‘ category on this website and listen to my appearances in local media including television news interviews and talkradio interviews; discussion of the council prayer issue on various podcasts; commentary and reporting; and much more.

Watch the below video, my original objection to council prayer during the July 13 council meeting, and read why I object to prayer in a lengthy piece I authored.

As always, feel free to leave comments below and please join me at the July 16 council meeting in which I will once again object to prayer (or thank council for removing from from public meetings if they select the right action and remove prayer). Prepare statements, bring video recording equipment (or a cell phone), and support my appeal to council.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula produces content about Stoic Philosophy; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and hosts monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is pursuing a degree in Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and formerly worked for the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign and plays at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • Brive1987

    I am not American so don’t understand the nuance, but I would have thought by now there would be a clear legal policy describing for all the practical implications of the separation act on govt practices?

    If the policy is that vanilla prayers are ok then, unless the council starts invoking Jesus, arent you barking up the wrong tree?

    It seems the law is fine on “religion” but not on “church”. Possibly harkening back to a day when there was just one religion but many contrary interpretations (churches)?

    • My initial objection to council was not a legal objection, but rather a plea for council to be more inclusive and not involve religion in public meetings. The FFRF letter, although it says law is mixed on government-led prayer at council meetings, does not focus on legal objections. It’s possible for council to remove prayer without citizens resorting to legal action. In fact, much of my activism was a ‘success’ without ever entering the courts – especially my 2009 objection to a lone nativity scene on courthouse grounds in which the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, working with me, sent a letter.

      • Brive1987

        I understood your approach was not legal. I wasnt sure whether this implied they have a ‘right’ to vanilla prayer. I find it amazing the law is “mixed” on such a basic question arising from the establishment act. I would have thought this would have been sorted long ago, but having quickly researched the topic it appears every incident legally stands alone and even the question of whether the 10 Commandments can appear in court houses remains a “mixed” question. Amazing.

        • The caselaw can vary. In regards to prayer at government meetings, prayer has been upheld following some legal challenges under the banner of “ceremonial deism” and arguments that particular religion is not being advanced. Specific prayers involving phrases like “blood of Jesus,” “the apostle Paul,” “death on a cross,” etc. seem not to stand more often than not when legal scrutiny is applied.

          • Brive1987

            Id be interested to see how ceremonial deism religion. I thought that sounded like a particularly good way to describe Catholicism. :-)

            Good luck with your appeal to reason given the comments of the Mayor re being “persons of faith”. Maybe you could suggest a secular version.

          • skeptixx

            “Ceremonial deism” has been used in several decisions by the Supreme Court, thankyouverymuch; supposedly “protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny
            chiefly because [such uses] have lost through rote repetition any significant
            religious content” [Justice Brennan, 1984] and “[t]hese references are not minor trespasses upon the Establishment Clause
            to which I turn a blind eye. Instead, their history, character, and
            context prevent them from being constitutional violations at all” [Justice O’Connor, 2004]. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceremonial_deism

          • Brive1987

            Read the ref. The distinction appears arbitrarily loose and focused on solving a pragmatic inconvenience rather than being logical. Ie When is God only god ……?

            If the usage meant nothing it probably would fall out of use.

  • skeptixx

    It’ll be interesting to hear what the council says/does at the July 16th meeting.

    Also, interesting mix of letters to the editor on the page with yours (particularly, from my POV, the one from the person who has written to the paper with his “realization” about tissue oxygenation wrt distance from the heart…)

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