New Luzerne County Courthouse holiday display

2014 Luzerne County Courthouse holiday display
2014 Luzerne County Courthouse holiday display

This year’s holiday display on Luzerne County Courthouse grounds includes both religious and secular symbols.

Five years ago, in December of 2009, upon first becoming involved with separation of church and state issues, I contacted the American Civil Liberties Union’s Pennsylvania chapter when I had seen a Christian display prominently featured at the Luzerne County Courthouse. Following some uproar, particularly from local citizens, a more inclusive display was erected in 2009.

This year, in 2014, Lzuerne County officials have correctly followed the 2009 inclusive display with another inclusive display. Kudos to them.

While I would like for there to be no religious symbols whatsoever on courthouse grounds — a complete separation of religion and government — I understand that this is not the current legal reality [religious holiday displays can be placed on government property provided there are other items making the display inclusive] and am happy Luzerne County officials, this time around, are adhering to the law.

Both secular and religious individuals wonder why issues like this are important. Why focus efforts on holiday displays and not larger issues like tax laws allowing unfair religious exemptions? My focus is particularly local, in the Northeastern Pennsylvania area, and ‘smaller issues’ like these are important to challenge because people appeal to these ‘smaller issues’ when defending the bigger issues a la ‘well, you see, there is no such thing as separation of church and state because governments place nativity scenes on courthouse lawns.’

It is nice to see that, years later, the ACLU and I have more than likely left a lasting impact and changed things for the better.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Collection of secular invocations

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

The Central Florida Freethought Community has collected several secular invocations on their website. 

Following Greece v. Galloway, people of various religious and non-religious perspectives have petitioned government officials to be included as a part of meeting invocations.

Meetings typically dominated by Judeo-Christian invocations have become more inclusive thanks to on-the-ground community activists.

My June 12, 2014 invocation — along with many others — is included among about 45 invocations listed, many in video form, on the website of the Central Florida Freethought Community.

Enjoy. As always, feel free to comment below. Which invocation, besides mine, is your favorite?

 

 

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.

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.