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.

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.