Council somewhat approves my secular invocation request

Justin Vacula addresses Wilkes-Barre City Council during May 29, 2014 meeting
Justin Vacula addresses Wilkes-Barre City Council during May 29, 2014 meeting

Wilkes-Barre City Council approved my request to provide a secular invocation at a future meeting, but is only allowing me to do so during the public comment section.

I addressed Wilkes-Barre City Council during its May 29, 2014 meeting asking permission to provide a secular invocation in place of the traditional government-led Judeo-Christian prayer led by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle.

I also aired grievances related to improper treatment regarding the hanging of the 2014 Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner on Public Square, objected to recent government entanglement with religion, and encouraged Wilkes-Barre officials to remain neutral on matters of religion in their governmental capacities.

Watch a video of my speech, including a rough partial transcript, and listen to my exchange with council below.

Councilman Tony George responded to my speech saying,

“I don’t think we say the prayer. We ask the Lord for making the right decisions. We’re not forcing that on anybody. […] We’re not asking you to have faith in him. We’re asking him to give us the right decision to make our decisions. We’re not making you petition the Lord. I have a right to petition the Lord if I want to and when we say a prayer we’re asking for the right decisions to make policy. If you have five minutes, if you want to use your secular prayer for your five minutes, you can do what you want with that five minutes.”

George’s response was awkward. He first claimed that council doesn’t say a prayer, but rather is ‘asking the Lord to make the right decisions’ and then said that council offers prayer…even though my speech was, unlike my June 2013 speech before council, not asking council to remove their Christian prayers. Petitioning the Lord, anyway, might as well be the definition of prayer – at least within a Judeo-Christian framework.

I then, in response to George’s comments about using the public comment section of the meeting to deliver a secular invocation, again asked to use the opening portion of the meeting to deliver a secular invocation.

George replied, “When it’s your turn to speak you can say your prayer,” again refusing me to open council meetings — following the Pledge of Allegiance — with a secular invocation.

Why is it that a city council refuses citizens who which to offer an alternative message in place of government-led prayer? Wilkes-Barre City Council unfortunately, failing to represent a diversity of viewpoints within the city, refuses to let anyone apart from council members to provide an opening invocation.

Although I am not able to open a Wilkes-Barre council meeting with a secular invocation, I will use my five minutes of public comment time at a future Wilkes-Barre council meeting to deliver a secular invocation. Stay tuned during the first week of June 2014 for a press release to be issued on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society which will be released on this website.

Bill Wellock, writer for the Wilkes-Barre based newspaper The Citizens’ Voice, also has reported on this issue and other happenings at the May 29 council meeting. Feel free to post in the comment section which partially includes people informing me that I am going to Hell.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; 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.

  • Mike Walsh

    If “Nothing fails like prayer”, why do you want to give an “invocation” (a prayer, basically) to open council meetings. If you do not believe in God or anything, what could you possibly say. Also, why do you have to demean religious beliefs? How do you know “Nothing fails like prayer”. You don’t see Christians or religions in general bashing Atheists/Agnostics ever. You don’t want to believe in a higher being, fine, just don’t keep trying to take away our right to worship/recognize God as we please. Why can’t your banner just say “The NEPA Free Thought Society believes that “Nothing fails like prayer”. You do not believe in God and want no mention of him in public settings or on public property and if you get your way then you are satisfied, but those who believe in God are supposed to not have any reference to God. Do you know every session of Congress is opened with an invocation and no one complains about that. Do you carry U.S. dollars with “In God We Trust” on it? How do you say the “Pledge of Allegiance”? I bet you don’t say it at all. And don’t give me the old standby phrase “Separation of Church and State”. The 1st Amendment simply states that Congress shall make no law establishing or endorsing a religion. Nothing about it has to be kept out of the public domain.