Catherine O’Brien speaks about closing remarks at Empowering Women Through Secularism following controversy, dissent from audience members:
As always, please feel free to leave your comments below!
Talkback 16 — a segment in which local television news station WNEP-TV 16 airs recorded comments from viewers — recently featured individuals commenting on my June 13, 2013 address to Wilkes-Barre City Council in objection to government-led prayer during council meetings. Callers on the June 17, 2013 edition — seemingly disgruntled with my address to council (and the corresponding media coverage, some of it from WNEP-TV 16, which followed) — voiced objections of their own. Play the video clip below and read my responses to callers.
Caller one says, “In response to the issue of taking prayer out of the council meeting: people aren’t being forced to pray, so if you don’t want to, don’t do it.”
I completely understand that people are not being forced to pray. I had, in fact, on two occasions, remained seated and quiet during Wilkes-Barre City Council prayer led by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle. My objection, though, has nothing to do with whether or not people are forced to pray; the caller is missing the point. I said, in my address to council,
“My name is Justin Vacula. 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, PA. I am also a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation – the largest group of freethinkers in the United States. I speak on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society. I address city council today to object to prayer which was delivered at the June 1 work meeting [and at tonight’s meeting]. Prayer at public government meetings is divisive, inappropriate, coercive, exclusionary, unnecessary, and an unwelcome religious impositions on meeting attendees. Government officials should not be leading or scheduling prayer at government functions. Luzerne County and Wilkes-Barre are regions including Muslims, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, and members of other religious or non-religious identities and should not be subjected to prayer, a religious ritual, led by government officials and endorsed by government, against their will. Religion, according to the Pennsylvania state constitution, is a personal matter which should be up to individuals’ consciences. Government should not takes sides on matters of religion or religious ritual.” I urge council to cease prayer at future meetings. End this divisive, inappropriate, coercive, exclusionary, unnecessary, and unwelcome religious imposition.”
Caller two says, “More people believe in God than those who don’t so the majority should rule. That’s what’s wrong with this country, nobody’s praying.”
What, I wonder, ought to be the case if a majority of people in Wilkes-Barre happened to believe in Allah? Shall devotions to Mohammad open City Council meetings? Shall City Council similarly, if a majority of people believed child slavery were moral, include auctions for child slaves on meeting agendas? Apparently, mob rule, a tyranny of the majority, according to some, should replace our legal system and/or chiefly inform our moral commitments.
In the United States, Americans are guaranteed particular rights no matter how many people happen to agree or disagree with certain propositions. While ‘majority rule’ may prevail in some instances, this is not the case concerning whether government entities ought to lead council prayer (or whether, for that matter, government-led council prayers are legal). Citizens, including government officials, may pray on their own time and even at council meetings provided they do not lead or endorse prayer; people may, as the Bible suggests, pray quietly and in private. I would also venture to guess that prayer is not going to cease problems of violence, corruption, and other social ills in Wilkes-Barre. After all, council meetings are simply not times for religious devotions.
Caller three says, “There’s no problem with him sitting there and just thinking his own thoughts. He’s the founder of the [NEPA] Freethought Society. That’s just my free thoughts.”
This is essentially a “shut up and listen” sentiment I know all too well. The implication here seems to be that I should, during council meetings, just remain seated while prayer takes place and refrain from complaining about it – perhaps because of the fact that I am an atheist, because council members — according to Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton — are “people of faith,” and, as caller two suggested, “the majority should rule.” Because I do not believe in the efficacy of prayer and identify as an atheist, my thoughts, according to some, are irrelevant. Theists — for whatever reasons — may only make certain decisions while atheists (and people of minority religious groups) are excluded from conversation or consideration.
Unfortunately, this set of Talkback 16 callers rejects my plea for government neutrality on matters of religious belief and prayer…and [specific Judeo-Chrisitian] religious belief, regardless of the diversity of viewpoints in the local area and the secular character of the United States, should trump all law, moral arguments, and pleas for inclusivity. I look forward to more (hopefully thoughtful) discussion on these matters throughout the community, in the media, and throughout the internet.
Consider further exploring the issue of government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings by investigating the category of ‘council prayer‘ within this website; watch interviews, read more comments from the general public, view media articles, and watch videos.
Watch my June 13, 2013 objection to council:
Watch WNEP-TV 16 reporting:
Listen to my appearance on local talkradio:
As always, feel free to comment below.
Jerry Lynott — writer for The Times Leader — recently authored an article mentioning my address to Wilkes-Barre City Council objecting to government-led prayer during council meetings. Read more concerning my objection to council prayer in this extensive piece, find more information in the ‘council prayer‘ category on this website, and watch my address to council:
Lynott, in his article, also commenting on other items addressed at the Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting, wrote,
More police would help, too, said James Gallagher of Poplar Street. He was told there were only four officers on duty early Sunday morning when a lawnmower was stolen from Nicholson Street, he said. He suggested the city take some of the $650,000 budgeted for street cleaning and put it toward hiring more police.
Gallagher prefaced his remarks by telling council, “God bless you guys” in response to Justin Vacula’s objection to beginning each council meeting with a prayer.
Vacula, an Exeter resident, self-described atheist and member of the NEPA Freethought Society, had paid for a permit to hang a banner that read “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” on Public Square.
“I urge council to cease prayer at future meetings,” Vacula said.
Council Chairman Bill Barrett said council will look into Vacula’s concern and research the issue of the opening prayer.
Again, we see the odd “self-described” adjective attached to “atheist.” I am not sure why reporters use this term and am increasingly perplexed because I hardly, if ever, see phrases like “self-described Christian” or “self-described Jew” in media reporting. The article also, although it correctly mentions and spells the NEPA Freethought Society, says I am a member of the organization although I am the group’s co-organizer and spokesperson. Regardless, it is nice to see a mention in local media and attention being drawn to the issue of government-led prayer at council meetings.
This article, much different from the article on WNEP-TV 16, does not focus on my objection to prayer, but the comment section is filled with — shall we say — objections to my objection and some very welcome support from fellow secularists. Following are some comments following the article:
“Opening meeting and allowing the council to say a prayer is just common decency something that’s lacking in the new breed of atheist. They choose not to believe in god and they have an agenda to make it politically incorrect to mention god or to practice religion in public in any way.”
“Why don’t you join the military and help support that right of freedom of speech even though it is garbage coming out of your wise A&* mouth.”
“As you do not want christian beliefs thrust upon you, I might suggest that you enter council meetings 5 minutes after the scheduled start time. This will prohibit you from being offended.”
“This Dracula guy gives me the creeps.Wish he would find someplace else to spew his evil words.”
“The problem with vacula is, that he is trying to violate the rights of others, by saying his rights are being violated”
“My earlier point was the fact that, if he feels infringed upon for someone else showing their faith. Why should his beliefs restrict what others may do?”
“He is a showboat, perhaps even a sociopath, simply looking for attention.”
“In GOD we Trust and So help you God, this nation was founded on christian believes. You are confused about the constitution and bill of rights.”
More of the same, unfortunately, from many presumably Christian commenters: I want to ban speech, I am objecting because I am offended, my viewpoint is not valid because I have not served in the military, I should stand in the hallway if I don’t like prayer, I am evil, I am violating others’ rights, I am a sociopath, and America is founded upon Christian belief.
I must say, though, that the climate — at least what I have seen — for atheists in America is getting better. Many theists, in recent years, have come to me not with hatred, but rather with support and agreement on church/state separation issues. The level of nastiness is much lesser than what I experienced in 2009. I have also witnessed hospitality from local pastors who were interested in conversation [not conversion] — including one who invited me to lunch (and another with whom I will have coffee with this Wednesday) — and I had experienced much civility from theists at a National Day of Prayer event I protested earlier this year.
Respect, genuineness, kindness, and civility seem to go a long way. When atheist and church/state activists, it seems, treat others with respect, respect is often reciprocated. Nastiness will always exist, especially on the internet, but I believe it can be diminished when a person bearing a message set a high standard for discourse and civility. If I were, for instance, to go around calling theists ‘stupid,’ ‘dumb,’ and was attacking persons rather than discussing ideas — like why I believe prayer is inappropriate — I would likely receive a very negative response and get less support from local theists and fellow atheists. No matter the approach, though, not everyone will be pleased and, again, nastiness will always exist.
As always, feel free to leave your comments below and consider commenting on The Times Leader article which, at time of this piece’s publishing, has 141 comments.
I appeared on the June 14, 2013 episode of “Corbett” on WILK Newsradio to discuss my June 13, 2013 address to Wilkes-Barre City Council in which I objected to government-led prayer at council meetings and urged council to remove prayer from future governmental functions. Listen to my interview embedded below within this piece.
I — repeating some remarks I made before council — explained that government-led prayer is exclusionary, divisive, unwelcome, and unnecessary. Further, I noted that the prayer — contrary to some news reporting — was not before meetings, but rather was during meetings – after the Pledge of Allegiance which is featured on meeting agendas. Citizens who attend public meetings (many religious, non-religious, and from diverse religious traditions) — I argue — should not be subjected to government-endorsed prayer.
Corbett largely agreed with my remarks in the interview; he considered Wilkes-Barre City Council prayer, led by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle, to be “out of line” and “bad public policy.” He is not optimistic, though, concerning whether council will remove prayer because, he says, they are not listening to me and are of an old-school mentality “liking their Christian prayer.”
Watch my address to council below and read more concerning my objection to council prayer in this extensive piece.
As always, free to to join the discussion by adding your comments. If you are commenting on a particular point in my conversation with Corbett, please indicate a timestamp.
WNEP-TV writer Julia Melf authored an article titled “Man Objects To Prayers Before City Council Meetings” concerning my June 13, 2013 address to Wilkes-Barre City Council objecting to government-led prayer urging council to remove prayer from future meetings.
The comment section — with more than 120 comments — includes individuals asserting I secretly hate America, saying I should leave the United States because I am not welcome, telling me to “shut up and listen” to prayer, and suggesting I ought to leave council meetings (or not attend) if I object to prayer.
For more information pertaining to my objection to council prayer, read my extensive analysis. Those who have not viewed my address to Wilkes-Barre City Council ought to watch the below video:
Consider also watching an audio version of the WNEP-TV reporting:
Text of the article follows:
WILKES-BARRE — An objection was made Thursday night at the Wilkes-Barre city council meeting over the council’s use of prayer before meetings.
After the pledge of allegiance was recited and the weekly prayer was read, Justin Vacula stood up to make his case to city council.
Vacula, a self-proclaimed atheist, is the co-organizer and spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society and said although the act of prayer has been a long standing tradition at council meetings, government officials should leave prayer to individuals and refrain from leading prayer at council meetings.
Wilkes-Barre City Council President Bill Barrett said the board would get back to Vacula on the matter.
This article was one of the first media reports concerning my objection to government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings. The reporting was a decent short piece although the title appears to be misleading; prayer does not occur before council meetings, but rather occurs during council meetings – after the [“one nation under God”] Pledge of Allegiance which is prominently included as the first agenda item. For whatever reason, prayer — although it occurs during council meetings and is lead by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle — is absent from the agenda.
The WNEP TV-16 article allowed for open discussion through commenting enabled on the article. Many secularists and individuals appearing to be theists joined the comment section which, this afternoon, has 125 comments. Secularists provided insightful comments while many who appear to be theists largely did not.
Following are some comments accompanying the article:
“Seems to me you want to limit other peoples free thought”
“…I WOULD OF TOLD THIS PERSON 2/REMOVE HIMSELF TIL THE PRAYER WAS OVRA…”
“…This is how they inject excitement into their otherwise dreary and ordinary lives.”
“Tell him to stand in the hall until after the prayer is said and then enter the meeting if he is so against prayer!!!!”
“…GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE ! NEPA FREETHOUGHT SOCIETY SHOULD BE BANNED…….”
“Tell him to stay out of the meeting room till the prayer is finished.”
“Tell that guy if he doesn’t want to hear the prayer then don’t go to the meetings or at least attend after the prayer is read. There is always somebody that wants to upset the apple cart. I personally think it should be read.”
“…You and his kind, just like deleting traditions from society and probably secretly hate the U.S. Go live in Iran…”
“If you don’t like prayer don’t participate but don’t take away other peoples rights to pray…”
“…Waste even more time and resources by making it an unnecessary political issue…”
“…I just dont see how anyone that does not believe in something has any hope…”
“…If you do not believe in God, then you do not have to take part in the prayer. Just sit quietly until it is over. It is not as if someone is putting a gun to your head and forcing you to pray to a God that you don’t believe it, because their not…”
“…If you object to a prayer being said at the beginning of the meeting, wait outside till it is done and you won’t have to listen. I’m tired of the ppl who think their right to not believe is the law of the land…”
“…If your an atheist then you have the right to leave the room while prayer is being said. Stop crying about it. No one is forcing you to sit and listen or shoving anything down your throat you do not believe in…”
“…that man could have left if he didn’t want to hear it…”
“…Tell him to sit down, shut up and listen to the meeting. If he has anything constructive to add to the decorum, then it shall be duly noted, otherwise, SHUT UP…”
As always, feel free to leave your comments below.
Consider also commenting on the WNEP-TV 16 article.
Add your voice to the discussion.