Nothing Prevails Like Prayer banner update

'Nothing Prevails Like Prayer' banner
‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ banner

Last week, I lamented the fact that a banner reading ‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ was unprominently displayed on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre.

While I don’t believe prayer prevails, I do believe that citizens who submit banners should have their messages prominently placed and equally so in relation to other banners.

To date, this is the second unprominently placed banner I have observed on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre. The first unprominently displayed banner was a banner I hung in response to a National Day of Prayer event.

When banners are unprominently placed — displayed on the reverse side of the Public Square scaffolding structure while others are placed on the front side which is far more visible — it appears to be the case that city officials are showing preference toward some views because banners are not equally prominent. I would like to see a separation of church and state in which government officials are neutral on matters of religion, displaying messages at equal prominence regardless of their content.

Last Thursday, I spoke in-person with Community Relations Coordinator Liza Prokop requesting that the ‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ banner be moved to the front of the scaffolding structure and for future banners to be placed on the front side – at equal prominence.

Prokop explained that the city has discretion over where the banners are placed and noted that since the Farmer’s Market season — June through November — has started, banners other than those from Market sponsors, those who pay $3000 for banner placement and other perks (mention in promotional materials, vendor space, logo/banner creation), will be placed on the reverse side of the scaffolding structure.

I asked where such a policy was, noting that my right-to-know request explained that there is no policy/document about banner placement and Prokop told me that there is no written policy. I explained to Prokop that absent a banner policy people would get the impression, like I did, that the city is not treating citizens equally in regards to banner displays.

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 can understand that Market sponsors, since they are paying for a message to be placed specifically for the Farmer’s Market, would have their banners displayed on the front side of the scaffolding structure but, as I explained to Prokop, there is a good deal of room for other banners to also be placed on the front side of the scaffolding structure [there is currently only one displayed Market sponsor].

Additionally, although city officials indeed have discretion over where banners are placed on Public Square, officials should be obligated to treat messages equally [absent a legitimate policy about where banners are placed]. If city officials want to charge a premium for front display and charge a lesser fee for rear display, for instance, this should be stated in a policy.

Going forward, I would like to see the city of Wilkes-Barre to create policies in regards to banner placement to allow for more transparency so that citizens may know what they are paying for and where there banners may be displayed.

While Prokop’s explanation allows for more clarity, I am still not satisfied given that when my banner was placed, the ‘May is Mental Health Month’ banner was displayed more prominently even though — as I noted in previous posts — the organization which displayed that banner did not have an event on Public Square. If it is the case that hosting an event on Public Square allows for more prominent banner placement, the mental health banner should not have been displayed more prominently in comparison with my banner.

Nothing Prevails Like Prayer banner hung

'Nothing Prevails Like Prayer' banner
‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ banner

A banner reading ‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ is now displayed on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre.

6/30/14 update: I contacted a treasurer involved with the group responsible for the banner. We had a phone conversation in which she told me a person from her group contacted the city. The city said there was a mistake and would place the banner on the front side of the scaffolding structure. I informed the treasurer, as I did in my blog post, after I identified myself, that I think all banners should be placed on the front side of the scaffolding structure and that I would contact City Hall if no changes are made. 

Last month, as a response to the National Day of Prayer and a corresponding Circle the Square With Prayer event, I displayed a banner reading ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The banner, placed days late, was unprominently displayed on the reverse side of a scaffolding structure – out of sight of Circle the Square With Prayer event attendees.

Following the unprominent display, I questioned city officials about the banner’s placement (see video of an exchange here) — noting I never have seen a banner displayed on the reverse side of the scaffolding structure — and was informed that my banner was unprominently displayed because Public Square was rented for that day. This explanation is flawed because there is no evidence of rental agreements dictating this and a banner reading ‘May is Mental Health Month’—displayed by NAMI as a right-to-know request unveiled — was prominently displayed alongside a National Day of Prayer banner.

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

Now, a group, The Lay Servants of the Immaculate Heart Of Mary, presumably responding to the Nothing Fails Like Prayer banner, is advertising on Public Square and, oddly enough, the banner is being displayed on the reverse side of the scaffolding structure. Last month, I asked city officials to display all banners at equal prominence and now – for some reason – a religious banner, the second banner I ever saw erected on the reverse side of the scaffolding structure, is being unprominently displayed. City officials have ignored my request for equal promotion of viewpoints submitted by members of the public.

Will city officials now, displaying this new banner unprominently, use this as reason to openly discriminate – as they already have seem to have done – on the basis of viewpoint by placing certain banners, whether they be mine or others, at their discretion with little to no accountability or oversight, out of prominence?

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

Sadly, I have not been contacted by the organization responsible for the ‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ banner. Since they are hanging this banner, what seems to be a response to the banner I hung, I would think they would be interested in dialogue. I would be happy to discuss the efficacy of prayer, arguments for/against the existence of God, and related topics – preferably in a public format similar to discussions and debates I had with Pastor Dan Nichols and Pastor Michael Brewster.

I contend there is no good reason to suggest prayer – communication with a supernatural being – prevails. There are no good reasons to suggest that supernatural interventions are part of day-to-day life. Instead, prayers go unanswered. Natural disasters, deadly birth defects, and an insurmountable amount of unneeded suffering plagues our existence despite centuries of requests for a reprieve. Nothing fails like prayer.

Right-to-know requests answered

Right to Know Request page 1
Right-to-know request page 1

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.

 

Right-to-know request page 2
Right-to-know request page 2

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.

As always, feel free to share and comment.

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.