Objection to my prayer objection

Bob Shortz — at the July 16, 2013 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting — addressed council objecting to my objection to government-led prayer at council meetings.

Shortz encouraged council to continue its tradition of government-led prayer and casts the issue — rather than an issue of separation of church and state — as an issue of free speech and a matter of me being offended by prayer. Watch the video of his remarks below and read my response to some of his points.

The spaghetti monster does not have a reputation for answering prayers.’

During my remarks at the June 2013 council meeting, I asked council why they pray to “Almighty God in Heaven’ and not Amon-Ra, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or other deities. I also asked council to explain why they offer prayers. I received no direct response to these questions. Since when does the god of council’s choosing answer prayers? Can this be demonstrated? If council is expecting a deific intervention — an impartation of divine guidance and wisdom — it is clear that government-led prayer at council meetings is not ‘just a tradition’ as council chair Barrett claims, but rather is a religious ritual.

I do not find mention of Almighty God to be a prayer to a Judeo-Christian deity.’

It is clearly not a prayer to the Flying Spaghetti Monster as Shortz acknowledges. Regardless of the deity petitioned, government-led prayer should be absent from council meetings. If prayers were offered to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I would — perhaps to the chagrin of worshippers of His Noodly Appendages — similarly protest prayer. Council members, although they are “people of faith” as Mayor Thomas Leighton mentioned, should leave their religious rituals out of government meetings and pray on their own time.

I do not think Mr. Vacula is really concerned about prayers at meetings. He’s opposed to religion in general.’

I am opposed to religion in general, but this has no bearing on my objection to prayer at council meetings. I am asking government officials to remove government-led prayers from council meetings because I want to see religion separate from politics and government activities. If Islamic prayers, for example, were offered at meetings, it would be silly to respond to Christian objections saying, “This is not really about prayers because you’re opposed to Islam in general.” Although I am an atheist [and opposed to religion in general], not all who object to prayer at council meetings are atheists or opposed to religion in general. I just happen to be the objector at this time. Future meetings may include religious individuals who have the courage to openly dissent.

He wants us to be sensitive to his feelings, but he is offensive to religious people with his “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner which was placed on Public Square.’

My opposition to government-led prayer is not an issue of me being offended or asking others to be sensitive to my feelings. I rarely, if ever, would say that I am offended or demand others modify their behavior to suit my feelings while claiming offense. I simply want government-led prayer removed from council meetings because religious rituals ought to be separate from government functions. Council members should not be offering prayers during public meetings.

This is a free speech issue.’

When government officials utter prayers and statements at council meetings, the speech in question is that of government, not individual citizens. Government officials, on their own time, may offer prayers or participate in religious services, but they ought not intertwine themselves at public meetings.

He is not a resident of Wilkes-Barre.’

Whether or not I am a resident of Wilkes-Barre makes no difference. Consider the merits of my arguments and understand the dubious legality of government prayer. Shall we object to members of the FBI — who do not live in Wilkes-Barre — stating activities in Wilkes-Barre are unethical or illegal simply because they aren’t residents of the city? Arguments ought to stand on their own merits regardless of who is putting them forth. Besides, I work in Wilkes-Barre and am the spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society – an organization with meetings and members in Wilkes-Barre. Regardless, future meetings will include Wilkes-Barre residents objecting to prayer at council meetings.

As always, feel free to comment below.

More information about government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings can be found within the category of ‘council prayer‘ on this website.

Government-led prayers at Wilkes-Barre City Council July meeting

Government-led prayers continue at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings.

July 16’s ‘combined session’ included three prayers — during the special meeting, the work session, and the regular meeting — in one evening. As usual, Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle led the following prayer: “Almighty and everlasting God who presides over all things in Heaven, come and preside over these deliberations so that those who make the decisions may be guided by your wisdom.”

See video footage of two July 16, 2013 prayers below:

Find more information about the issue of government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre Council meetings by viewing the category ‘council prayer‘ which includes my June 2013 address to councilinitial objection to council prayer, television appearances (1, 2) and a talkradio appearance, a letter the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent to council, podcast interviews (1, 2, 3), a letter to the editor I wrote, and more. Consider also listening to a recent interview I had with President of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayer’s Association Frank Sorick.

My July 2013 objection to government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre Council meetings

Justin Vacula addresses Wilkes-Barre City Council at July 2013 meeting
Justin Vacula addresses Wilkes-Barre City Council at July 2013 meeting

I addressed Wilkes-Barre City Council at its July 16, 2013 public meeting – once again objecting to their government-led prayer which occurs during council meetings. Read a transcript of my remarks below and watch the corresponding video of my address to council.

This post arrives following a short hiatus I have taken from most internet activity following my trip to Ireland for the Empowering Women Through Secularism conference, the move to justinvacula.com, my time at the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival in Scranton, activism pertaining to this council prayer issue (including attending the July 16 meeting and addressing council), exhaustion which has recently set in, and much more including work and daily life activities.

Rather than burning out, I took a short break, picked up a new hobby, and will now return to regular blogging. Check back this week for more frequent pieces including commentary and updates on the issue of government-led prayer at council meetings in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Find more information about the issue of government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre Council meetings by viewing the category ‘council prayer‘ which includes my June 2013 address to councilinitial objection to council prayer, television appearances (1, 2) and a talkradio appearance, a letter the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent to council, podcast interviews (1, 2, 3), a letter to the editor I wrote, and more information.

Following is a video and transcript of my address to Wilkes-Barre City Council (thanks to a Luzerne County resident for recording and uploading this video):

My name is Justin Vacula. I reside in Exeter, Pennsylvania here in Luzerne County and write at justinvacula.com. 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.

At last month’s city council meeting, I objected to government-led prayer which has been delivered at numerous council meetings. I address council today to object once again, provide an update, and follow up on the previous meeting.

At last month’s meeting, I was told that council would look into my concerns and come to a decision concerning prayer. Council chair Barrett said that most people do not have concerns about government-led prayer and that it is a tradition at council meetings.

Whether or not prayer is a tradition has no bearing on whether council should lead meetings with prayer. After all, many long-standing traditions in the United States and throughout the world have been abandoned because of moral breakthroughs.

Children working in coal mines, for instance, was a tradition in this region that many people condoned, facilitated, and did not speak against. We have come a long way since then and have realized that this practice was unethical. Whether or not, I would venture, children working in coal mines was legal would have no bearing on whether it is ethical and should continue. Prayer, whether legal or not, is problematic at government meetings – especially when government officials (proudly declared, by the way, as “people of faith” by Mayor Leighton at the May 27 council meeting) are leading the prayer and intertwining religion with politics.

Further, when questioned about a freethought holiday banner I had legally placed on Public Square, Mayor Leighton said, “We live in a free country; unfortunately everyone has the right to say whatever they want to say.” Mayor Leighton, it seems, declares the free speech of atheists to be “unfortunate” while participating in and condoning prayer at public meetings – never saying that prayer is “unfortunate.” When speaking more about the banner, Mayor Leighton said, “sometimes our hands are tied” and said that the banner was, “one of those cases.” Notice the mayor reserving his language for the speech of atheists, but not speech of council members he calls “people of faith,” acting in capacities as government officials.

I find the assertion that most people do not care about government-led prayer at council meetings, as council chair Barrett said, to be suspect. I am not the only one here who objects to government-led prayer at council meetings. Following and during the last council meeting, audience members thanked me for my remarks and said they agreed. Following reporting from local media, including television interviews and newspaper articles, members of the community sounded off in comment sections online and through private messages sent to me stating that government members should not be leading prayer during council meetings.

Some of these individuals who object to government-led prayer may not want to go public and will instead use pseudonyms. Many of these people do not want to make public comments for fear of reprisal from family members, co-workers, and people in the community. When religious ritual is brought into government proceedings, favoritism is shown while in-groups and out-groups are created. Government leaders, when involving themselves with religion in their capacities as public servants, cultivate a hostile climate in which people who object to government being involved with religion become ostracized political outsiders.

While not all members of the community may publicly speak at council meetings concerning their objections to prayer, a national organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, representing more than 650 of its members in Pennsylvania and more than 19,000 in the United States, has backed me in my objection to prayer and has sent a letter to council dated June 27.

The letter urges council to cease government-led prayers at public meetings and notes that government prayers are exclusionary, of dubious legality, and run contrary to the secular character of the United States.

The letter ends noting, “The solution is simple: discontinue official, government prayers at your meetings. We urge you to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual. If government meetings must show reverence, let it be for our secular and godless Constitution, which enshrines the greatest American invention – the separation of state and church.”

What reason does council have to offer prayer – which is, by the way, mysteriously missing from the agenda, not noted after the pledge which is listed? Is there a secular purpose served by calling on a deity, as councilwoman Lavelle calls it, “almighty and everlasting God who presides over all things in Heaven,” to intervene in human affairs as councilwoman Lavelle says, “come and preside over these deliberations so that those who make the decisions may be guided by your wisdom.”

Cannot instead council leave religious ritual out of public meetings and pray in private as the Bible reports Jesus saying in Matthew 6 chapters 5 to 6 – “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. … When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is unseen?”

If members of the public and even members of council enjoy religious rituals, they may go – on their own time and off taxpayer-funded time – to many local places of worship or worship privately. Government meetings are simply not places for worship, prayer, or religious ritual.

Please end government-led prayer at public meetings. End this divisive, inappropriate, coercive, exclusionary, unnecessary, and unwelcome religious imposition on citizens who come to these meetings. Government officials should not be leading or scheduling prayer at government functions.

Thank you.

As always, feel free to leave your comments below.

“Discontinue prayer at public meetings” LTE

580216_10151537993694327_1946310874_nA recent letter to the editor (LTE) I authored titled “Discontinue prayer at public meetings” was published in today’s edition of The Times Leader both online and in print.

This letter urges members of Wilkes-Barre City Council to discontinue their tradition of government-led prayer at public meetings, encourages locals to join me in opposition to prayer, and references a recent letter the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent to council which similarly urges a cessation of government-led prayer.

The text of my letter to the editor, slightly modified because of an error [the next council meeting is July 16, 2013 and not July 11], follows:

On June 13, 2013, I addressed Wilkes-Barre City Council objecting to government-led prayer and urging council to remove prayer from government meetings. I detailed why I object to governmental prayer in a follow-up written piece now available on justinvacula.com, was since featured in local media and was most recently backed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) who joined me in my dispute with Wilkes-Barre City Council.

FFRF’s three-page letter argues that government prayers are exclusionary, unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive while noting that council members may pray on their own time rather than during public meetings in which they lend power and prestige to religion in a governmental endorsement which excludes 19% of a nonreligious American population.

FFRF also states that “[t]he state of the law regarding the constitutionality of government-sponsored prayers is unstable,” affirms the secular character and founding of the United States, and notes Jesus’ exaltation — during his Sermon on the Mount address — “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. … when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father who is unseen” (Matthew 6:5-6).

The letter’s final paragraph reads, “The solution is simple: discontinue official, government prayers at your meetings. We urge you to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual. If government meetings must show reverence, let it be for our secular and godless Constitution, which enshrines the greatest American invention — the separation of state and church.”

I will once again address council in its next open meeting including public comment on July 16, 2013. I hope to see local residents at this meeting and encourage them, like me, to prepare five-minute remarks addressing council whether they defiantly continue prayer or remove it from the sessions.

Learn more about my objection to government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings. Visit the ‘council prayer‘ category on this website and listen to my appearances in local media including television news interviews and talkradio interviews; discussion of the council prayer issue on various podcasts; commentary and reporting; and much more.

Watch the below video, my original objection to council prayer during the July 13 council meeting, and read why I object to prayer in a lengthy piece I authored.

As always, feel free to leave comments below and please join me at the July 16 council meeting in which I will once again object to prayer (or thank council for removing from from public meetings if they select the right action and remove prayer). Prepare statements, bring video recording equipment (or a cell phone), and support my appeal to council.

Action alert: July 16 council meeting

"Man Objects To Prayers Before City Council Meetings" c/o WNEP TV-16
“Man Objects To Prayers Before City Council Meetings” c/o WNEP TV-16

Wilkes-Barre City Council will be hosting its next council meeting on Tuesday, July 16 [not July 11 as I had previously believed]. I encourage local church/state separation advocates to attend this meeting with prepared comments objecting to council’s tradition of government-led prayer.

I first addressed this issue and members of council during the June 13, 2013 city council meeting. Council chair Bill Barrett, following my remarks, said council would research and ‘get back to me’ concerning whether council would continue its tradition of prayer.

Approximately one month later, I have heard nothing from council members despite extensive media coverage and a recent letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent to council.

I hope to be joined by locals who wish to help remove government-led Judeo-Christian prayers from city council meetings. Get up from behind your keyboard, prepare a short statement (or even offer an impromptu statement if you wish), take a public stand against religious impositions in government, and tell members of Wilkes-Barre City Council you object.

Interested parties who may not want to offer statements for whatever reason are still encouraged to attend. Witness the events of the July 16, 2013 council meeting which may include other objectors (or supporters) of government-led prayer. Bring a camera or an audio recorder to record the council meeting. Support, in whatever form, which takes little effort, would be very much appreciated.

If all goes well, council may even remove prayer from its public meetings and I will instead offer a speech thanking council, affirming the secular character of the United States, and explaining why removal of prayer was the right decision. I will have two speeches prepared and will deliver statements regardless of whether council continues prayer. Hopefully I will not have to read another speech objecting to prayer.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment below or contact me through the contact form on this website.