Vote Justin Vacula for best secular invocation

Activist Justin Vacula speaking up again through ‘secular invocation’ at Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting June 08. 2014 The Times Leader
Activist Justin Vacula speaking up again through ‘secular invocation’ at Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting
June 08. 2014
The Times Leader

Vote for my secular invocation as the best of 2014 in the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s new annual contest!

I have worked hard an activist for the separation of church and state for about five years — challenging local and state violations of church/state separation — by filing complaints, challenging government officials, participating in lawsuits, and taking a very public stand in my community far beyond keyboard strokes.

Most recently, I delivered a secular invocation at a Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting and have been included in a contest for best secular invocation of 2014 held by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Why should I be selected as a winner? For those of you who are unfamiliar with my history of activism…

In December of 2009, as one of my first activist efforts, I challenged the constitutionality of an exclusively erected courthouse nativity scene — arguing for inclusivity and government neutrality on matters of religion — and, working with the ACLU, successfully changed courthouse policy; inclusive displays are now erected.

Since then — working alongside organizations and sometimes alone — I have challenged school-sponsored prayer resulting in policy change, protested a school voucher bill at a state capitol rally, removed government-sponsored religious messages from bus route information, challenged security officers’ coaxing of citizens to ‘stand to show respect’ for prayer at House of Representatives sessions, protested a rally advocating for special religious exemptions from healthcare mandates, was listed in a lawsuit following legislation declaring ‘The Year of The Bible’ in Pennsylvania, protested National Day of Prayer rallies in-person with signage and displayed banners, and most recently — among other efforts — objected to government-sponsored Christian prayers at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings by repeatedly appearing at meetings and offering speeches.

Justin Vacula addresses Wilkes-Barre City Council
Justin Vacula addresses Wilkes-Barre City Council

I initially challenged government-sponsored prayer in June of 2013 and soon after appeared on local television during two newscasts, in online news media, on local talkradio, in a local newspaper, on the now defunct Syndicated News Services, gained support from the Freedom From Religion Foundation who sent a letter to city officials, and authored a letter to the editor which appeared in a local newspaper. I returned to speak before council in July of 2013.

In 2014, I petitioned council to, in place of government-sponsored Christian prayer, offer a secular invocation while also encouraging members of the community — in light of Greece v. Galloway, to be included rather than government officials having exclusive control over opening remarks (prayers) at meetings.

My request to deliver a secular invocation in place of Christian prayer was declined. No one from the community, to my knowledge, was invited to deliver an invocation in place of government prayer. I was, though, invited to deliver a secular invocation during the public comment section of council meetings and later obliged by announcing intentions to deliver a secular invocation via press release. News of the secular invocation, featuring an interview I had participated in, was then featured on the upper-front page of a local newspaper.

Through my efforts, with help of others, a tremendous amount of attention was drawn to the issue of government-led prayer at council meetings. I delivered my secular invocation in June of 2013 — a model for what opening remarks, appealing to all, at council meetings should look like — and was recently selected by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to be included in a contest for the best secular invocation of 2014. I’m asking for your support and vote.

Voting is very easy, requires no signups outside of Facebook, e-mail, and YouTube accounts you likely already have, is cost-free, and painless.

You may vote by (1) ‘liking’ a YouTube video of my secular invocation which is embedded below:

http://youtu.be/g9aAh-HQoOM

(2) Commenting in this Facebook thread simply saying something like ‘I vote for contest entrant #1 Justin Vacula.’

and (3) sending an e-mail to NothingFailsLikePrayer@FFRF.org with a subject line of ‘I vote for contest entrant #1 Justin Vacula.’

Voting is not limited to one method; you may vote using all three methods.

Your support is very much appreciated. Should I win, I will receive an all-expenses paid trip to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 2015 annual conference in California, an honorarium of $500, a plaque, and the honor of opening the conference with my secular invocation delivered before Wilkes-Barre City Council.

Voting ends September 18, 2014.

Thanks for your time and, as always, feel free to comment below.

Thanks, once again, to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It’s an honor to be included in this contest.

Secular invocation unworthy of coverage?

Activist Justin Vacula speaking up again through ‘secular invocation’ at Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting June 08. 2014 The Times Leader
Activist Justin Vacula speaking up again through ‘secular invocation’ at Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting
June 08. 2014
The Times Leader

A recently published letter to the editor rebukes The Times Leader for front-page coverage of my secular invocation plans. I respond.

On June 9, 2014, a local newspaper — The Times Leader — featured a front-page article in which I was interviewed concerning church/state separation and my plans to provide a secular invocation at a Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting as an alternative to the government-led Judeo-Christian prayer.

Soon after the article was published, I gave my secular invocation which you can watch here. The article was timely and newsworthy for several reasons: my secular invocation would be given days following the article, the Supreme Court recently concluded the Greece v. Galloway case, and my secular invocation would be — as far as I know — a first of its kind invocation at a Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting.

I have objected the government-led Judeo-Christian prayer at council meetings on several occasions – not online here on this website, but also in-person during the public comment sections of council meetings. The newspaper article covered the history of my objections, interactions with council members, and also included comments from a councilman. I have also been quite active in on-the-ground activism not only concerning the prayer, but also objecting to other happenings. See the ‘council prayer’ category for more information.

Ann Anderika, writing from Wilkes-Barre, wrote a letter to the editor stating that a secular invocation is “not exactly an earth-shattering topic” claiming it is not important to newspaper subscribers.  As I mentioned, the article was newsworthy and timely for several reasons, so I fail to understand Anderika’s objections.

Anderika also wrote,

Also, Mr. Vacula might need to review his studies of history; discussions regarding religion have been taking place for centuries. If people on the Wilkes-Barre City Council seem to be disregarding his passion on this subject, it might be because prayer has already been a national debate several times! After a while, it just gets old and tired.

Remember: Your right to practice your atheism ends where my right to practice theism begins!

Indeed, discussion about religion has been happening for centuries. The discussion may get ‘old and tired,’ but one new thing I am bringing to the table is a call for more inclusivity. Just because government officials happen to be Christian and prefer Christian prayers does not mean it is permissible to — as government officials — show preference for religious traditions. I call for government to remain neutral on matters of religion.

If Wilkes-Barre officials allowed me to provide a secular invocation during a meeting opening — rather than sequestering me to the public comment section (see the exchange here in response to my plea) government officials would seem to be, as it should be the case, neutral on matters of religion…but Wilkes-Barre City Council is sadly uninterested in inclusing non-Christian perspectives in its meeting openings.

My ‘right of practicing atheism,’ in giving a secular invocation, is not ‘ending’ at council meetings and this is not infringing on rights of Christians to pray. Individuals may, of course, in private (and in public) pray as they feel fit, but prayer at government meetings — offered by officials especially when non-Christian perspectives are not permitted during meeting openings even when a member of the public petitions council — is problematic.

As always, feel free to share and comment below.

 

Video of my secular invocation

I provided a secular invocation on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society at the June 12, 2014 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting.

Following several objections to the government-led Judeo-Christian prayers at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings [see my July 2013 speech and June 2013 speech], a letter to the editor published in a local newspaper, an appearance on local television news, a letter Freedom From Religion Foundation sent to council, suggested compromises to make meetings more inclusive [see my May 29, 2014 speech], a press release, and a lengthy interview with a local newspaper reporter, I delivered a secular invocation at the June 12, 2014 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting.

Council did not allow me (or anyone else) to provide an invocation in place of council’s recurring ‘Almighty God in Heaven’ prayer during meetings, but allowed me to provide a secular invocation during the public comment section. Sadly, council does not want to budge.

While I am dissatisfied with being sequestered to the public comment section rather than being allowed time to speak in place of council’s prayer, I took the opportunity to deliver a secular invocation which included a healthy dose of skepticism and parts of my ‘life philosophy.’

Following my address to council, Jerry Lynott, writer for The Times Leader, mentioned my secular invocation in an article published the next day.

Below is a video of my invocation and a rough transcript. Enjoy.

My name is Justin Vacula. I am a co-organizer and spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society – a social, educational, activist, and philosophical coalition of atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and skeptics predicated on community which upholds the separation of church and state and promotes critical thinking.

I asked to provide a secular invocation at the start of council meetings to provide an alternative to the government-led Judeo-Christian prayer offered by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle which begins each meeting.

Council refused my request to offer an invocation at the beginning of the meeting, but allowed me to offer a secular invocation during the public comment section. I lament council’s decision to continue exclusionary prayer led by government officials at these public meetings. Further, I am dissatisfied with council barring members of the public from offering opening invocations in place of the government-led prayer.

Today, I will provide a modified secular invocation from the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State — an inclusive message which council can use as a guideline for future meetings so that meeting invocations are more inclusive.

We come here to do the business of local government. Government officials have pledged to improve the quality of this community and are entrusted with doing so.

As we gather, we are reminded that although we have differences we are linked by our common humanity. When we work together to move our community forward in a spirit of mutual respect and common decency, we showcase what is best about our community, our state, and our nation.

We embrace many traditions and represent many demographics. We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, Pagans, unaffiliated, uncertain, and so many other things. We are young and old and everything in between. We represent many races and nationalities. We identify as libertarian, liberal, progressive, and conservative.

To be sure, we do not agree about everything and we often feel fiercely protective of what we do believe. But there is one thing on which we all agree. We share the goal of making our community the best place it can be. We unite here today with that noble aim and common purpose.

Citizens and government officials ought to enter meetings with a healthy dose of humility and doubt – being receptive to the ideas of others and having the willingness to change any and all of their beliefs given good reason, argument, and evidence. We ought to seek and welcome challenges to our beliefs. We should be concerned about whether our beliefs are justified and true.

Let us not have intellectual arrogance – outright dismissing the ideas of our detractors and declaring that our beliefs are non-negotiable, not up for debate or revision. Let us remember that our beliefs inform our actions and, because of this, often translate into real-world impact – having the potential to help or harm others. Let informed reason, evidence, and argument inform discourse not only at city council meetings, but also in all aspects of our lives. Demand good reasons, arguments, and evidence when people present claims. Thoroughly consider perspectives of those with whom you disagree.

For if we happen to discard our cherished beliefs, we make intellectual progress. While it may be difficult to admit being wrong or break away from tradition, changing our beliefs so that we perceive the world more accurately is a huge benefit – a sign of growth and maturity.

Let us remember horrid traditions in this community and nation which were justified mostly on the basis of ‘it was always done this way’ including coal mining which offered workers – boys and men who would work in extremely dangerous conditions – little to no protection. As we progress as a community and species, we make moral progress and break from tradition. Tradition alone is no justification for belief.

It is people, although they often disagree on matters they view as important, who come together to make change in our communities. It is through action, at local and even larger levels, by which we progress. It is through passionate debate, although it may seem uncomfortable, by which we challenge our own perspectives and learn from others – sometimes changing our own beliefs when there is good reason to do so.

It is my hope that at this council meeting and others – and even encounters in everyday life – that we work together to make change in our communities. It is my hope that we challenge ourselves and others to improve our quality of life. It is my hope that respect, when deserved, is extended to others. It is my hope that good argument, evidence, and reason guides the decisions of all within and outside of this room. Thank you.

As always, feel free to comment below and share.

Newspaper interview about my upcoming secular invocation

Activist Justin Vacula speaking up again through ‘secular invocation’ at Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting June 08. 2014 The Times Leader
Activist Justin Vacula speaking up again through ‘secular invocation’ at Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting
June 08. 2014
The Times Leader

I was interviewed for a front page feature length Times Leader newspaper article concerning my upcoming secular invocation and church/state separation.

Last week — following my comments at a May 29, 2014 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting and a press release announcing my intentions to provide a secular invocation at a June 12, 2014 council meeting — I met with reporter James O’ Malley to provide comment for an article to appear in The Times Leader.

The article appeared today above the fold on the front page of The Times Leader and extended to the inside. Within the lengthy article — also including comment from King’s College professor Jonathan Malesic and Wilkes University professor Kyle Kreider — I spoke about my interactions with council, my reasoning for council to be more inclusive allowing alternatives to government-led Judeo-Christian prayers, and other church/state activism I have been involved with.

Read the article provided online here. An archived version — because articles are eventually removed from the internet — is here [Activist Justin Vacula_TL] in PDF format. Consider weighing in on the comment section which, at the time of the post, has 82 comments.

NEPA Freethought Society to deliver secular invocation at June 12, 2014 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE June 1, 2014

Media Contact: Justin Vacula, justinvacula [at] gmail.com

NEPA Freethought Society to deliver secular invocation at June 12, 2014 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting

Wilkes-Barre – The NEPA Freethought Society — a social, educational, activist, and philosophical coalition of atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and skeptics predicated on support and community which upholds the separation of church and state and promotes critical thinking — will deliver a secular invocation at Wilkes-Barre City Council’s 6:00 PM June 12, 2014 meeting.

Justin Vacula — NEPA Freethought Society Spokesperson and Co-organizer — will deliver a secular invocation as an alternative to the Judeo-Christian government-led prayers offered by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle at each council meeting.

Vacula has voiced objections to council’s prayers and council’s refusals to include alternative perspectives to prayer, both religious and non-religious, during several council meetings. Councilman Tony George, at a May 29, 2014 council meeting, although refusing time for Vacula to speak during openings of meetings, permitted Vacula to provide a secular invocation during five minutes of the public comment section.

Vacula, on June 1, explained his rationale for providing a secular invocation, “Wilkes-Barre City Council continues to exclusively provide government-led Judeo-Christian prayer during its meetings despite objections. Since council will not allow citizens to speak during openings of meetings, the proper response is to offer a secular invocation during the public comment section as a form of protest and an inclusive model which council can utilize.”

The secular invocation will not denigrate believers, critique religious belief, or rebuke members of city government Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton described as “people of faith” at a May 2013 council meeting, but rather will provide an inclusive message which council members and citizens can reflect upon to inform their thought processes and discourse. A voice for non-Christians delivering an alternative to Judeo-Christian government-led prayer, for what might be the first time, will be represented at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings.

Members of the public — both religious and non-religious — are also encouraged to attend the June 12 council meeting and future council meetings to offer invocations of their own as alternatives to Judeo-Christian government-led prayers. Prospective attendees must arrive prior to start of meetings (preferably 15 minutes) to complete a provided speaker form lest they are not permitted to speak.

More information about the NEPA Freethought Society can be found on their new website located at www.meetup.com/NEPAFreethoughtSociety.

Vacula’s website can be found at www.justinvacula.com.

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