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.