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Posted by on May 5, 2014 in 2014 FFRF banner, government, local, NEPA Freethought Society, politics, responding to arguments, separation of church and state, youtube | 4 comments

Recorded discussion with Wilkes-Barre officials about FFRF banner

Marie McCormick, Wilkes-Barre City Administrator

Marie McCormick, Wilkes-Barre City Administrator

I recorded discussion with Wilkes-Barre officials in which I asked why my FFRF banner was unprominently hung on the reverse side of a scaffolding structure.

On the morning of May 5, I entered the office of Thomas Leighton — mayor of Wilkes-Barre — within Wilkes-Barre’s city hall to inquire about the placement of a Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) banner reading ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer.’ On May 1 — days later than the city agreed upon — city officials unprominently hung the FFRF banner on the reverse side of a scaffolding structure whose front, prominent side housed a banner commemorating the National Day of Prayer and Mental Health Month.

I recorded a conversation. Watch the video below and continue reading for elaboration on my responses to city officials.

The conversation with city officials unfortunately validated my hypothesis that city officials intentionally placed the FFRF banner on the reserve side of the scaffolding structure to prioritize religious viewpoints over non-religious viewpoints such as mine. I mainly spoke with City Administrator Marie McCormick who, before speaking with me, said, to another city official, “No, we’re good.”

McCormick, in our conversation, claimed that city workers hang banners on the reverse side of the scaffolding structure “periodically.” I attended King’s College in Wilkes-Barre — very close to Public Square — for four years and have viewed Public Square on a regular basis since I began working for my current employer in September of 2012.

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

I have never seen a banner on the reverse side of the Public Square scaffolding structure. In fact, six banners were placed on the front of the scaffolding structure during a St. Patrick’s Day parade as I explained. Why would a banner be displayed on the opposite side? Why would some citizens — all of them paying an equal amount for one week of display — receive unequal treatment in display of their viewpoints?

McCormick elaborated, “There was an event on the [Public] Square and they paid for the whole [Public] Square and their banner got on the front.” As I explained to McCormick, I don’t understand why, because a group rented Public Square, which has nothing to do with the hanging of banners or my banners, their banner would be displayed on the front side of a scaffolding structure and mine would be displayed on the back…and why would the Mental Health Month banner be displayed on the front when — according to McCormick — mine was displayed on the reverse side because the prayer group rented Public Square?

Memo from City Hall confirming banner display date and receiving check

Memo from City Hall confirming banner display date and receiving check

Trying to compromise, McCormick offered to “switch” my banner, placing it on the front side of the scaffolding structure, because the other event was “over with.” While I obliged, agreeing for city officials to move my banner to the front side, I noted that this compromise was inadequate because the FFRF banner should have been displayed on the front side to begin with. Besides, as I previously mentioned, why would the Mental Health Month banner be on the front side while mine was placed on the back when Mental Health Month had nothing to do with the event?

McCormick, responding to my continued inquiry asking why my banner would be placed on the reverse side, said, “Sometimes we just do that. It’s not meant to do anything to you. We’ll correct it today.” Correcting the banner after the fact, coupled with the fact that, to my knowledge, there never has been a banner on the reserve side of the scaffolding structure, does not fix the initial problem. McCormick admits that, because of the event, the FFRF banner was intentionally placed on the reserve side of the scaffolding structure.

Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)

Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)

Liza Prokop, Special Events Coordinator, elaborated saying, “The days that the banners were hung that was the day of prayer so they had the square booked that day, so now we can switch it and we’ll certainly do that and we can even give him a couple of extra days.”

Prokop’s explanation, like McCormick’s explanation, does not seem plausible because, if the banner were placed on the reverse side because the prayer group rented Public Square [which, again, is implausible because banner rental is separate from Public Square rental and the Mental Health Month banner -- having nothing to do with the National Day of Prayer -- was placed on the front side of the scaffolding] on Thursday, the FFRF banner should have been moved on Friday – one day after the prayer event.

Besides, the 2011 Special Events Request Form indicates that Public Square rental and banner rental are two separate items; Public Square rental does not include sole display on the scaffolding structure…and this is evidenced by the Mental Health Month banner hanging.

Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 - days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event

Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 – days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event

McCormick, in response to my request that future banners be displayed with equal prominence, said “well noted.” Later in the day, the FFRF banner, as promised, was placed on the front of the scaffolding structure…but it really doesn’t matter now.

Reasoning from McCormick and Prokop is extremely dubious for reasons I mentioned. My viewpoint was intentionally placed out of prominence by a hostile city administration (or perhaps a rogue city worker) in a stunning display of arrogance and discrimination toward individuals voicing dissent toward a government-sanctioned religious event. The City of Wilkes-Barre is acting in bad faith.

For more about the Circle the Square with Prayer event and my protest of it, see the ‘2014 FFRF banner‘ category. Read my initial press release issued by the NEPA Freethought Society announcing the FFRF banner and my protest; my response to criticisms; reaction to Wilkes-Barre closing in “observance of Good Friday” coupled with FFRF’s letter of complaint; and interview with a newspaper reporter.

Stay tuned for more information including future interviews/articles/podcasts about this topic (at least two are to come); conversations I had with event atendees and passerby; and a discussion I had with a pastor who claimed that I was being offensive and disrespectful because I placed the FFRF banner on Public Square.

Thanks to Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta for weighing in.

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