My right-to-know requests following the unprominent placement of the ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner I hung have been answered.
Last month, I, with the help of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, paid for hanging of a banner reading ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre. The banner was a response to a National Day of Prayer event dubbed Circle the Square With Prayer. City officials displayed the banner in an unprominent location when compared with a banner commemorating the National Day of Prayer; my banner was displayed on the reverse side of a scaffolding structure while the National Day of Prayer banner and a banner reading ‘May is Mental Health Month’ were prominently displayed.
Following the unprominent display of the ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner, I spoke with City Administrator Marie McCormick and recorded the discussion. McCormick, responding to a question about why my banner was unprominently displayed, said, “There was an event on the [Public] Square and they paid for the whole [Public] Square and their banner got on the front.” McCormick’s explaination did not make sense for several reasons – namely because the ‘May is Mental Health Month’ banner was displayed with the National Day of Prayer banner…and if my banner would be unprominently placed the ‘May is Mental Health Banner’ would similarly be unprominently placed if it were the case that Public Square rental gives exclusive domain over the front side of the scaffolding structure.
A right-to-know request — inquiring about the National Day of Prayer banner and the Mental Health Month banner — I filed was recently fulfilled. As I suspected, different groups paid for display of the National Day of Prayer and Mental Health Month banners. Additionally, there were separate charges for banner display and Public Square rental. McCormick’s reasoning, then, is vacuous in light of these revelations. It overwhelmingly appears to be the case that because city officials or someone else making decisions intentionally gave religious viewpoints prominence over a non-religious message.
Sadly, government neutrality on matters of religion is not always the case in Wilkes-Barre. In addition to the unprominent placement of the ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner, city council opens its meetings with government-led Judeo-Christian prayers and refuses to allow alternative messages and/or speakers from the public to provide invocations immediately following the Pledge of Allegiance (see more about the matter here including my recent secular invocation I was only able to provide during a public comment section).
Wilkes-Barre City Hall also closed “in observance of Good Friday.”
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton, commenting on the ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner which was also hung in 2013, said, “We live in a free country. Unfortunately, everybody has the rights to say whatever what they want to say.” Leighton also said, regarding the banner, “sometimes our hands are tied” and “this is one of those cases.”
I will continue to pursue church/state separation issues and atheist activism in Northeastern Pennsylvania. While the climate is not very welcome, I will continue to take a stand. Hopefully — even though Wilkes-Barre officials will likely continue its government-led Judeo-Christian prayers at council meetings — Wilkes-Barre officials will improve.
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