Responding to criticism of church/state lawsuits

Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)
Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)

Brief thoughts concerning criticism of church/state lawsuits…

I was recently involved in a discussion with a humanist who portrayed lawsuits that organizations advocating for the separation of government and religion file as heavy-handed and antagonistic toward religious individuals. I’ll explain that lawsuits are often filed as a last resort and that religious individuals should not feel attacked.

I have worked alongside various legal teams on numerous church/state separation issues in the Northeastern Pennsylvania area. In each situation, they did not immediately file a lawsuit, but rather first sought to discover facts about an issue, speak with government officials, and work toward a resolution without need for a lawsuit. Many situations were resolved without legal action as government officials acknowledged a problem and made amends so that future violations would not happen. Lawsuits are filed as a final option when other means are exhausted.

My activism for the separation of religion and government largely began in 2009 when I challenged a prominent nativity scene featured on a county courthouse lawn. I worked alongside the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State who corresponded with county officials to address this religious display which, rather than being inclusive, prominently featured a Christian viewpoint. The nativity and other decorations including a non-prominently placed menorah were removed and later replaced with a more inclusive display.

During this process, I received a good deal of vitriol from religious individuals. Although I was interviewed in various media outlets including television news and newspapers offering my desire for government neutrality on matters of religion, people were outraged claiming that their rights were being violated – unwilling to depart from a narrative of Christians being ‘under attack’ which was voiced by religious individuals including pastors in the area.421499_10150513069124327_502483225_n

Although there was no lawsuit in the case of the nativity scene and no need for legal action [because county officials remedied the issue by placing a more inclusive display], people falsely spread the lie that legal action occurred and one county official even claimed that since the county couldn’t afford a court challenge the nativity scene was initially removed although, again, no court challenge was necessary. Perhaps he was simply saving face, pandering, rather than admitting a violation had occurred…

Lawsuits are filed as a result of government entanglement with religion only when government officials refuse to remedy a violation following input from various organizations. Advocating for government neutrality on matters of religion isn’t attacking or antagonizing religious individuals, but is instead a stance looking for fairness. At the end of the day, some religious individuals will continue to frame lawsuits as persecution of religious individuals, but this simply isn’t the case. Religious believers can practice religion, but we secularists simply want governments out of that equation.

ACLU Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against County of Lackawanna Transit System

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ACLU Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against County of Lackawanna Transit System

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 28, 2015

CONTACT: Sara Mullen, ACLU of Pennsylvania, 215-592-1513 x122, smullen@aclupa.org

PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today against the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) over its refusal to allow a local atheist group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, to advertise on its buses. The lawsuit argues that the transit system violated NEPA Freethought Society’s free speech rights by rejecting its ads because of the group’s views.

Since 2012, the NEPA Freethought Society has tried unsuccessfully to run various ads on COLTS buses. The rejected ads simply say “atheists” along with the group’s name and/or website. COLTS first turned down one of these ads under a policy that gave COLTS discretion to reject ads it deemed “controversial” or that would spark debate or discussion of public issues. In commenting on the rejection, COLTS’ solicitors said that COLTS did not accept any ads “promoting” or “attacking” religion or ads intended to spark public debate. However, according to the complaint, for at least ten years before NEPA Freethought Society tried to advertise, COLTS never rejected a single ad. COLTS has run ads from religious organizations, a political candidate, and a blog with links to anti-Jewish websites. COLTS also displayed the message “God Bless America” on the front of one bus for years.

In September 2013, COLTS again rejected the society’s proposed “atheists” ad, explaining that COLTS believed the ad would “offend or alienate” some of COLTS’ riders, causing COLTS to lose money. Eight days after rejecting the ad, COLTS adopted a new advertising policy that explicitly banned ads that “promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity” or address religion.

In 2014, COLTS finally accepted a version of the NEPA Freethought Society’s ad after it removed the word “atheists.”

“It’s hard to advertise effectively if we’re not allowed to use the word ‘atheists’ to say who the NEPA Freethought Society’s members are or who we’re trying to reach,” said Justin Vacula, organizer and spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society. “We just want to be treated fairly and allowed the same opportunity to advertise that COLTS has given other groups for years.”

According to the complaint, COLTS’ decision to ban all religious ads and begin enforcing its advertising policy was motivated by its dislike for NEPA Freethought Society’s beliefs.

“The First Amendment means that government officials can’t censor speech just because it’s unpopular or because they disagree with the speaker,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Once you open up a space for speech, you have to let everyone in equally.”

The NEPA Freethought Society is represented by Mary Catherine Roper and Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Theresa E. Loscalzo, Stephen J. Shapiro, and Monica Clarke Platt of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at: www.aclupa.org/COLTS

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Media:

Friendly Atheist relinked at RichardDawkins.net

Associated Press story featured on CNBCPhilly.com, The Washington Times, Reading Eagle, and other sources

The Times Leader (updated since original posting)

Scranton Times-Tribune (updated since original posting)

The LuLac Political Letter

Religion Clause

The Christian Post

Dispatches From The Culture Wars [archived screenshot]

Background Probability

The Washington Post

Christian News

Metro

 

NEPA Freethought Society bus ad in The Times-Tribune

NEPA Freethought Society advertisement, including disclaimer, to appear on COLTS bus
NEPA Freethought Society advertisement, including disclaimer, to appear on COLTS bus

The Scranton-based The Times-Tribune published an article concerning the upcoming NEPA Freethought Society bus advertisement.

Today, David Singleton, staff writer for the Scranton-based newspaper The Times-Tribune, published an article titled “Atheist group’s ad to appear on COLTS bus” which is available in print and online.

Last week, I spoke with Singleton concerning the upcoming NEPA Freethought Society advertisement which will soon be displayed on a County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) bus. We also spoke about the fundraiser I launched help make the advertisement a reality.

COLTS spokeswoman says that the advertisement is expected to appear this week. COLTS’ solicitor calls the advertisement “pretty content neutral.”

The final advertisement design, pictured above, has an added disclaimer on the bottom-right corner — placed by COLTS in line with its newest advertising policy — stating “The Views And/Or Opinions Expressed By The Advertiser Are Not Necessarily Those Of COLTS.”

View the online article and read the fundraiser for more information including prior attempts at advertising on COLTS’ buses. Consider visiting the NEPA Freethought Society’s website especially if you live in Northeastern Pennsylvania and are interested in meeting local freethinkers.

More updates, including pictures of the ad displayed on a bus, are to come.

As always, feel free to 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.