A group of vandals recently attempted to maliciously burn a holiday billboard placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) reading “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia,” placed in response to religious advertising, using gasoline.
‘Tis the season for secular and atheist organizations in the United States to advertise – mainly in response to religious messages and decorations in government-controlled areas and elsewhere; secular and atheist organizations lawfully respond to free speech with free speech.
Unfortunately, religious individuals who don’t like speech from atheist and secular organizations — rather than tolerating the speech or lawfully erecting displays of their own — often choose the path of vandalism, censorship, and intimidation.
According to an FFRF press release — coupled with a police report and reporting from South Jersey Times — two individuals tossed gasoline on the FFRF display and lit it. The fire, though, did not stay lit while the perpetrators fled. Police are now paying extra attention to the FFRF billboard and the FFRF is offering a $2000 reward for more information leading to the arrest and conviction of perpetrators.
Sadly, acts of vandalism and contempt toward atheists/secularists like these are far too common. Type “FFRF vandalism” on Google to see many examples including a personal experience of my own, described below.
In 2012, I worked with the FFRF to display a banner on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre which was later vandalized by an individual who gleefully appeared on television, in a news interview, admitting his crime. Following the placement of this banner, I was pictured in a flyer which appeared in Wilkes-Barre next to Saddam Hussein, Adolph Hitler, and Joseph Stalin. …but yet I am, according to a radio show host, the one with a “strong element of hate.” Find more information in the category ‘FFRF banner‘ on this website.
I suspect that hatred and misunderstanding informs these acts of censorship and vandalism. Many religious individuals, throughout their lives, from my experience, have not thoughtfully engaged with arguments against religious belief nor had thoughtful, respectful conversations with non-believers.
Rather than resorting to theft, vandalism of property, and personal attacks, reach out to those with whom you disagree or — at the very least — read what they publish online. While messages placed by atheists in the public sphere may be ‘biting’ toward those who have strongly held religious beliefs, this is no excuse to resort to unlawful conduct. Take a step back from what you may perceive as an ‘attack on your beliefs’ and instead think about why you make take offense.
First, messages like “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia” are not attacks on individuals, but rather are challenges to beliefs. The Bible, in 1 Peter 3:15 directs Christians to, when their beliefs are challenged, “prepare a defense and do so with gentleness and respect.” Those who believe their faith is strong should be prepared to respond to challenges and be steadfast in their response provided there are good, justifying reasons for religious belief. If you find that reasons for your religious beliefs are not good enough to withstand challenges, it should be time to reconsider your beliefs and investigate what people of a difference persuasion are saying.
Anyway, religious individuals do not have a monopoly on holiday displays. Non-religious individuals may advertise their messages — just like religious individuals — and should be permitted to do so without interference. In a free society, we must learn to — at the very least — co-exist with other individuals and tolerate others’ speech we may dislike. We need not affirm, agree with, or endorse others’ speech we disagree with and can — if we are so passionate — lawfully respond with messages of our own rather than pursuing vandalism and censorship likely informed by hatred.
I addressed Wilkes-Barre City Council during the public comment section of their June 13, 2013 meeting voicing my opposition to prayer offered by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle at council meetings. I urged council members — speaking on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society — to cease their divisive, inappropriate, coercive, exclusionary, unnecessary, and unwelcome religious rituals.
This piece will explain why I object to prayers at council meetings, explore the backstory of my objection, and encourage people to join me in opposing council prayer or otherwise becoming active in church/state activism. My exchanges with council, including other videos from the meeting, are included.
All of my above experiences have contributed to motivate me to oppose the enmeshing of religion and government, but more recent events have led me to specifically challenge prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings.
Mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Thomas Leighton — in response to a citizen’s comment at a May 27, 2013 City Council meeting questioning the banner’s placement on Public Square — said,
“We live in a free country. Unfortunately everyone has the rights to say whatever what they want to say” (see 3:46 in video)
after mentioning that he and council members are “people of faith” (see 3:32 in video).
The mayor had also noted “sometimes our hands are tied” when talking about the banner, mentioning “this is one of those cases” (see 3:50 in video).
I had attended a June 11, 2013 Wilkes-Barre City Council work session which began with Judeo-Christian prayer led by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle who — following the Pledge of Allegiance which included the phrase “under God” — said,
“Almighty and everlasting God who presides over all things in Heaven and Earth come and preside over these deliberations so that those who make the decisions may be guided by your wisdom.”
Although no public comment section was afforded to audience members, I waited after the meeting for Mayor Leighton so I could introduce myself and ask questions concerning the government-led prayer. Mayor Leighton — following eager, cordial, and lengthy responses to questions from members of the audience following the meeting — addressed my request to ask a question. I identified myself and handed the mayor a business card. I then started recording, beginning to ask a question concerning government-lead prayer at meetings.
Rather than allowing me to finish my question and be afforded with a response (as was the case for others in the audience who had waited for the meeting to conclude), Mayor Leighton said “I don’t wanna go there,” slammed down my business card, and walked away. Unfortunately, I do not have a video of this incident, but I do have a sound clip embedded below in which you can hear remarks from Mayor Leighton. I did not expect such unprofessional decorum from a mayor who — regardless of citizens’ religious beliefs or lack thereof — should treat meeting attendees equally and model professionalism.
I then attended the June 13, 2013 City Council meeting with a prepared statement and questions for City Council. Again, I was, against my conscience, subjected to Judeo-Christian prayer by City Council during the meeting following the pledge including “under God.”
During the public comment session, I addressed council with my objections to prayer and my plea for council to cease prayer at future meetings.
My name is Justin Vacula. I am the co-organizer and spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society – a local community group of atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers with meetings in Wilkes-Barre, PA. I am also a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation – the largest group of freethinkers in the United States. I speak on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society.
I address city council today to object to prayer which was delivered at the June 1 work meeting [and at tonight’s meeting]. Prayer at public government meetings is divisive, inappropriate, coercive, exclusionary, unnecessary, and an unwelcome religious impositions on meeting attendees. Government officials should not be leading or scheduling prayer at government functions.
Luzerne County and Wilkes-Barre are regions including Muslims, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, and members of other religious or non-religious identities and should not be subjected to prayer, a religious ritual, led by government officials and endorsed by government, against their will. Religion, according to the Pennsylvania state constitution, is a personal matter which should be up to individuals’ consciences. Government should not takes sides on matters of religion or religious ritual.”
I urge council to cease prayer at future meetings. End this divisive, inappropriate, coercive, exclusionary, unnecessary, and unwelcome religious imposition.
I then posed various questions to council following my opening remarks attempting to gauge how prayers are selected, who reads prayers, who may offer prayers, what the purpose of prayer at meetings is, why council invokes a Judeo-Christian deity, and whether council would tolerate opening remarks saying the Christian god does not exist.
Council Chairperson Bill Barrett, responding to my objections, said,
“We will look into your concerns as to the prayer at the beginning of the meetings and we will research it and come to a decision […] There’s a couple of things at work here. Probably tradition is one. I know for as long as I have been here there has been an open prayer. I think you’re probably the first person in my recollection who has made an issue of it. Most people do not have any concerns about it. It has been something that was probably going on long before myself as well. We will do a little bit of legal research and historical research and make a decision.”
After Barrett’s comment, I asked Mayor Leighton if he could clarify his comment about atheists’ free speech being unfortunate. Mayor Leighton responded saying,
“I believe it was taken out of context. The individual that was here was upset about the way people say things. I said it’s unfortunate people say things. We shouldn’t let them upset you if I don’t believe in what you believe. I never once meant anything about freedom of speech.”
I don’t believe the mayor’s comment was taken out of context by any means.
Following my comments, other notable portions of the meeting were captured [and uploaded on my Youtube channel]. Shawn Walker addressed the council in an extremely well-spoken professional manner concerning drug use and violence in Wilkes-Barre. Frank Sorick addressed council and was met with unprofessionalism from Mayor Leighton. A man shouted at council, levied egregious personal attacks which should not have been tolerated, violated expected decorum, was threatened with arrest, protested saying the only way he would leave was in handcuffs…and was met with unprofessionalism from Mayor Leighton.
I objected to Wilkes-Barre City Council including prayer at governmental meetings and urged them to cease prayer at future meetings. I refuse to tolerate continued imposition of religion and religious beliefs — as I detailed above in this piece, a mere sample of issues mainly in Pennsylvania — into government. I refuse to tolerate religious individuals of a majority opinion being afforded special privileges while religious minorities and non-religious individuals are thrown under the bus – not permitted to advertise their existence or told that their speech is “unfortunate” while religious messages are not commented on and presumably welcomed by Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton who — in his governmental capacity — noted that he and members of council are persons of faith.
It is time once again to take a stand for the separation of church and state and fight back against religion and government becoming intertwined. I hope others — both non-religious and religious — join in my efforts whether they engage in activism of their own accord, support fellow activists, or join the ‘front lines’ at council meetings delivering addresses. Move away from the keyboards and become involved. If you do not want to take a public stand, consider working anonymously or semi-anonymously in support of public individuals. Consider engaging in church/state activism or supporting activists no matter where you live. Join a secular organization. Donate to a cause or organization you support.
Stay tuned for more updates — including commentary on published articles, news reports, and more — concerning this issue of government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings. If you are near the Northeastern Pennsylvania area, I encourage you to attend the July 11 council meeting held at the Wilkes-Barre town hall. Come with pre-prepared five minute statements — the maximum time allotted for public comment — stating your objections to prayer or whatever you deem appropriate and deliver your remarks to council. Speak up for those who may not wish to speak or otherwise are unable to. Make a public stand so a difference can be made.
Post event reporting will be available the evening of 5/3/13 – JV
Last week, I saw a banner erected on Wilkes-Barre’s Public Square recognizing the National Day of Prayer and promoting an upcoming “Circle the Square With Prayer” event — hosted by the National Day of Prayer Committee of NEPA — in which Northeastern Pennsylvanians will gather with false hope – that their perceived communication with an alleged deity who not only cares about human affairs, but also will engage in divine intervention responding to their particular local concerns while natural disasters created by the same alleged deity ravage humanity and animalkind.
United States governments may not recognize an establishment of religion and thus have no legal or moral grounds to recognize an overtly religious National Day of Prayer. The Pennsylvania Constitution — to consider a state level — notes that “men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences” meaning, in part, that “no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience” and that “no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.”
Whether or not the National Day of Prayer or other government proclamations are unconstitutional, government should simply stay out of religion and focus on secular matters which are relevant to Americans regardless of their religious beliefs or lackthereof. The United States government has no business whatsoever suggesting that Americans “turn to God in prayer and meditation” as is suggested by the National Day of Prayer proclamation. Governments should not be telling or asking citizens to engage in religious activities.
Nothing fails like prayer
There is no compelling evidence to suggest that perceived communication with a deity translates into supernatural intervention. Extraordinary claims, after all, require extraordinary evidence and exemplary explanations. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people of countless denominations have been praying for world peace, an end to natural disasters, and an end to wars while wars continue, hatred persists, earthquakes kill, and medical studies show that prayer may actually be associated with poorer health outcomes. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it?
When theists admit that prayer is merely communication and meditation after failing to provide extraordinary evidence and offer exemplary explanations, God — although he wants humans to come to believe in him — suddenly is said to remain hidden because free will is to be preserved and is allegedly violated if divine interventions were to occur. Theistic explanations enter the realm of the unfalsifiable while more stubborn and superstitious believers contend that God serves as a special car key detector.
The belief that prayer may translate to divine intervention is a blight not only on rational thought, but also on the human race – discouraging people to partake in verifiable result-generating action and convincing them that mere hoping and thinking will translate into divine intervention. In most extreme cases, Christians resort to prayer and forgo medical care while children die and are later ‘excused away’ because “God needed another angel” and had a “special plan.”
America doesn’t need more prayer. America needs more reason and skepticism of religious claims which are retarding humanity and promoting incredulity.
Tomorrow, from approximately 3:30PM to 7:00PM, I will be peacefully protesting the “Circle the Square with Prayer” event – a voice of reason in the wilderness with intentions to expose prayer, make a case for a secular government, and debate religious believers. Rather than resorting to vandalism, I will exercise my freedom of speech and welcome religious individuals to do the same. Check back for post-event reporting.
Let the best ideas win.
Hope is a desert running dry. Deep inside, You refuse to face the facts, But pray for life. Find salvation in distress. We will wait For the day You’ll break out and re-awake.