FFRF banner unprominently placed in Wilkes-Barre

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight
Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

Wilkes-Barre officials unprominently placed an FFRF banner I submitted for display while a submitted National Day of Prayer banner was prominently placed.

What appears to be a clear case of viewpoint discrimination — privileging religious viewpoints over messages contrary to religious beliefs — occurred on May 1, 2014 at the hands of Wilkes-Barre city officials.

Rather than placing a religious and non-religious banners side-by-side, displaying them with equal levels of prominence, a non-religious banner I submitted was placed out of sight of a National Day of Prayer event — on the reverse side of a scaffolding structure rather than on the front side — while a banner recognizing the National Day of Prayer event was more prominently placed on the front side of scaffolding.

Watch a video linked below for a guided tour of Public Square comparing the placement of banners. Read further for more detailed information and background.

rear side of scaffolding structure, out of sight of event attendees and unprominently placed in comparison with NDOP banner
rear side of scaffolding structure, out of sight of event attendees and unprominently placed in comparison with NDOP banner

I appeared at Wilkes-Barre’s city hall on April 17, 2014 — one day before city hall closed “in observance of Good Friday” — to deliver a Freedom From Religion Foundation banner reading ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ to be displayed on Public Square from April 28 to May 5.

After giving city hall the required $50 for one week of a banner display, I received confirmation of the agreed upon date in a memo noting the check was received. Following confirmation, I issued a press release announcing protest of the National Day of Prayer event and the scheduled FFRF banner display date.

The banner was hung three days late, despite promise from city officials, well after they failed to return my multiple phone calls inquiring about the delay, and, unlike previous 2012 and 2013 displays of FFRF banners (and any other banners to my knowledge), the banner was hung on the reverse side of the scaffolding.

Event attendees do not see FFRF banner on reverse side of scaffolding
Event attendees do not see FFRF banner

I captured video of a walk through Public Square in which I show how, exactly, the FFRF banner was unprominently placed in comparison to the National Day of Prayer (NDOP) banner. The front side of the scaffolding structure, for instance, is not obscured by trees and can clearly be seen by persons who attended the Circle the Square With Prayer event. The reverse side of the scaffolding structure — unseen by event attendees, motorists, and pedestrians — does not allow for the same level of exposure.

The video, and many pictures I took, clearly shows that both NDOP and FFRF banners could be neatly placed on the same side of the scaffolding structure; there is more than enough space to house both banners.

Even though a ‘May is Mental Health Month’ banner is next to the NDOP banner, all three banners can still neatly be displayed on the front side of the scaffolding structure. Both NDOP and ‘May is Mental Health Month’ banners could also have been hung higher allowing for even more room above the parked bandshell on the scaffolding structure.

The image on the left shows five banners on the front side of Public Square's scaffolding (Credit: WNEP TV-16)
The image on the left shows five banners on the front side of Public Square’s scaffolding (Credit: WNEP TV-16)

What possible explanation can city officials provide to account for why the FFRF banner was unprominently placed in comparison to the NDOP banner?

Why would the reverse side of the scaffolding structure be used to display banners when, in the past, especially during a 2014 St. Patrick’s Day parade, at least six banners were displayed on the same (front) side of the scaffolding structure?

Why would a city truck I viewed in front of the scaffolding structure on the morning of May 1 first park in the front of the scaffolding to hang the NDOP and mental health month banners and then move to the rear side of the structure to hang the FFRF banner? Why waste time in moving the truck to hang two banners on one side and one banner on another when all three banners could easily fit on one side?

City truck is parked in front of scaffolding structure with workers preparing to hang banners...and later moved, rather than remaining parked to hang three banners, to hang FFRF banner on reverse side of scaffolding
City truck is parked in front of scaffolding structure with workers preparing to hang banners…and later moved, rather than remaining parked to hang three banners, to hang FFRF banner on reverse side of scaffolding

To paraphrase a previous piece I authored, I do not start with cynicism — seeing malice and ‘bad faith’ [from government officials] — but this banner situation has really moved me to reconsider my view of Wilkes-Barre city officials – especially when considering past transgressions within Wilkes-Barre.

Mayor Thomas Leighton, responding to a question about the previous display of the Nothing Fails Like Prayer banner, said, “We live in a free country. Unfortunately, everyone has the rights to say whatever what they want to say” while also saying “sometimes our hands are tied” and saying “this is one of those cases” to a citizen who questioned the banner’s placement.

Mayor Leighton also spoke of city council members — individuals involved with government-led Judeo-Christian prayers during council meetings which I spoke against at council meetings — as “people of faith” and refused to answer a question about council prayer I asked after a city work session. Leighton not only refused to answer my question, but also rudely walked away and slammed a business card I handed him on a desk.

Will city officials address my concerns surrounding the unprominent display of the FFRF banner?

Why are citizens being treated differently when they are supposed to receive the same quality of services for payments received by city officials?

All I ask for is equal treatment. If Wilkes-Barre provides a public forum, they should display all messages equally lest they want to cease their public forum altogether.

As always, feel free to comment below and share.

Thanks to Hemant and Jerome for weighing in.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted 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 currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with 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 while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.