Another discussion with Pastor Dan Nichols

I recently spoke with Pastor Dan Nichols whose church, Restored Church in Wilkes-Barre, received national media attention following its display of a billboard reading “I Love Sex” – God.

In a recorded audio clip, we speak about the billboard, sex, sexuality, marriage, abortion, politics, marketing Jesus, Christian belief, atheism, philosophy, and much more.

Consider also watching our first recorded discussion — an open-to-the public conversation which took place in Restored Church — here. Also consider reading some of my recent pieces which are follow-ups (1, 2, 3) to the discussion we had.

As always, feel free to comment below and/or on the YouTube video.

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.

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.

5/29/14 Wilkes-Barre city council meeting

Quick update:

I’ll be speaking at tonight’s Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting concerning events surrounding the improper placement and response from city officials in regards to the FFRF ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner.

I shall also ask city council for permission to deliver a secular invocation during council meetings (rather than the government-delivered prayer offered during meetings). Following the Greece v. Galloway decision, it’s my understanding that city council must allow people of different religious perspectives [and no religious perspectives] to deliver remarks opening/during meetings.

Check back tomorrow for a transcript of my speech, a video of my interaction with council, and afterthoughts on the response from council.

After all, on-the-ground activism is more useful than silly hashtag activism…