Why I object to government-led prayers at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings

"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

I addressed Wilkes-Barre City Council during the public comment section of their June 13, 2013 meeting voicing my opposition to prayer offered by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle at council meetings. I urged council members — speaking on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society — to cease their divisive, inappropriate, coercive, exclusionary, unnecessary, and unwelcome religious rituals.

This piece will explain why I object to prayers at council meetings, explore the backstory of my objection, and encourage people to join me in opposing council prayer or otherwise becoming active in church/state activism. My exchanges with council, including other videos from the meeting, are included.

In 2009, in my first act of secular activism, I objected to stand-alone religious displays — provided by, maintained by, and erected by local government — on the lawn of the Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. In 2011, I protested a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania aiming to support school voucher legislation which would send Pennsylvanians’ taxpayer dollars to religious schools. Following the rally, I was coerced to stand for prayer by an armed guard when I had remained seated for prayer in a Pennsylvania legislative session.

In March of 2012, I objected to “God Bless America” messages on Lackawanna County buses. I objected to Pennsylvania House of Representatives members declaring 2012 to be “The Year of the Bible” and was named as a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in a legal complaint. A bus ad I proposed in early 2012, with the message “Atheists.” was denied by a county transit authority on grounds that it was an “attack on religion,” “controversial,” and an “attempt to start debate on controversial issues.”

In addition to declaring 2012 as “The Year of the Bible,” Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced legislation to declare October 2012 as “Prayer Month,” 2012 as “The Year of Religious Diversity,” remove and/or not allow anonymity from anonymous objectors to issues involving the Establishment Clause, declare April of 2013 as “National Fast Day,” and declare a week in May of 2013 “American Religious History Week.”

More recently, in December of 2012, as a response to religious symbols on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre, I had worked with the FFRF to place a holiday freethought banner on public property. In May of 2013, I protested an event on Public Square commemorating the National Day of Prayer and later, again working with the FFRF, placed a “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner atop Public Square in response to the event and a banner promoting the National Day of Prayer.

All of my above experiences have contributed to motivate me to oppose the enmeshing of religion and government, but more recent events have led me to specifically challenge prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings.

Mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Thomas Leighton — in response to a citizen’s comment at a May 27, 2013 City Council meeting questioning the banner’s placement on Public Square — said,

We live in a free country. Unfortunately everyone has the rights to say whatever what they want to say” (see 3:46 in video)

after mentioning that he and council members are “people of faith” (see 3:32 in video).

The mayor had also noted “sometimes our hands are tied” when talking about the banner, mentioning “this is one of those cases” (see 3:50 in video).

I had attended a June 11, 2013 Wilkes-Barre City Council work session which began with Judeo-Christian prayer led by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle who — following the Pledge of Allegiance which included the phrase “under God” — said,

Almighty and everlasting God who presides over all things in Heaven and Earth come and preside over these deliberations so that those who make the decisions may be guided by your wisdom.”

Although no public comment section was afforded to audience members, I waited after the meeting for Mayor Leighton so I could introduce myself and ask questions concerning the government-led prayer. Mayor Leighton — following eager, cordial, and lengthy responses to questions from members of the audience following the meeting — addressed my request to ask a question. I identified myself and handed the mayor a business card. I then started recording, beginning to ask a question concerning government-lead prayer at meetings.

Rather than allowing me to finish my question and be afforded with a response (as was the case for others in the audience who had waited for the meeting to conclude), Mayor Leighton said “I don’t wanna go there,” slammed down my business card, and walked away. Unfortunately, I do not have a video of this incident, but I do have a sound clip embedded below in which you can hear remarks from Mayor Leighton. I did not expect such unprofessional decorum from a mayor who — regardless of citizens’ religious beliefs or lack thereof — should treat meeting attendees equally and model professionalism.

I then attended the June 13, 2013 City Council meeting with a prepared statement and questions for City Council. Again, I was, against my conscience, subjected to Judeo-Christian prayer by City Council during the meeting following the pledge including “under God.”

During the public comment session, I addressed council with my objections to prayer and my plea for council to cease prayer at future meetings.

I said,

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.

I then posed various questions to council following my opening remarks attempting to gauge how prayers are selected, who reads prayers, who may offer prayers, what the purpose of prayer at meetings is, why council invokes a Judeo-Christian deity, and whether council would tolerate opening remarks saying the Christian god does not exist.

Council Chairperson Bill Barrett, responding to my objections, said,

“We will look into your concerns as to the prayer at the beginning of the meetings and we will research it and come to a decision […] There’s a couple of things at work here. Probably tradition is one. I know for as long as I have been here there has been an open prayer. I think you’re probably the first person in my recollection who has made an issue of it. Most people do not have any concerns about it. It has been something that was probably going on long before myself as well. We will do a little bit of legal research and historical research and make a decision.”

After Barrett’s comment, I asked Mayor Leighton if he could clarify his comment about atheists’ free speech being unfortunate. Mayor Leighton responded saying,

“I believe it was taken out of context. The individual that was here was upset about the way people say things. I said it’s unfortunate people say things. We shouldn’t let them upset you if I don’t believe in what you believe. I never once meant anything about freedom of speech.”

I don’t believe the mayor’s comment was taken out of context by any means.

Following my comments, other notable portions of the meeting were captured [and uploaded on my Youtube channel]. Shawn Walker addressed the council in an extremely well-spoken professional manner concerning drug use and violence in Wilkes-Barre. Frank Sorick addressed council and was met with unprofessionalism from Mayor Leighton. A man shouted at council, levied egregious personal attacks which should not have been tolerated, violated expected decorum, was threatened with arrest, protested saying the only way he would leave was in handcuffs…and was met with unprofessionalism from Mayor Leighton.

Finally, a religious man, James Gallagher, said he would “continue to pray” “all the time” for me.

I objected to Wilkes-Barre City Council including prayer at governmental meetings and urged them to cease prayer at future meetings. I refuse to tolerate continued imposition of religion and religious beliefs — as I detailed above in this piece, a mere sample of issues mainly in Pennsylvania — into government. I refuse to tolerate religious individuals of a majority opinion being afforded special privileges while religious minorities and non-religious individuals are thrown under the bus – not permitted to advertise their existence or told that their speech is “unfortunate” while religious messages are not commented on and presumably welcomed by Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton who — in his governmental capacity — noted that he and members of council are persons of faith.

It is time once again to take a stand for the separation of church and state and fight back against religion and government becoming intertwined. I hope others — both non-religious and religious — join in my efforts whether they engage in activism of their own accord, support fellow activists, or join the ‘front lines’ at council meetings delivering addresses. Move away from the keyboards and become involved. If you do not want to take a public stand, consider working anonymously or semi-anonymously in support of public individuals. Consider engaging in church/state activism or supporting activists no matter where you live. Join a secular organization. Donate to a cause or organization you support.

Stay tuned for more updates — including commentary on published articles, news reports, and more — concerning this issue of government-led prayer at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings. If you are near the Northeastern Pennsylvania area, I encourage you to attend the July 11 council meeting held at the Wilkes-Barre town hall. Come with pre-prepared five minute statements — the maximum time allotted for public comment — stating your objections to prayer or whatever you deem appropriate and deliver your remarks to council. Speak up for those who may not wish to speak or otherwise are unable to. Make a public stand so a difference can be made.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Archived YouTube discussion with Dan Fincke

Our discussion about feminism and controversies within the atheist/skeptic communities is now available – mirrored on my YouTube channel in addition to the original hosting on Dan’s YouTube channel.

http://youtu.be/85l5rN_-6-g

Does atheism lead to beliefs about feminism?
What should the atheist movement be concerned with?
What are the concerns of particular feminists?
Is there good reason to suggest the atheist/skeptic communities are hostile to women?
Is there reason to doubt claims of harassment in the atheist/skeptic communities?
How should claims of harassment be handled?
Does ‘elevatorguy’ exist? Was asking for coffee in an elevator inappropriate?
Are anti-harassment policies needed for women to feel safe and welcome at conferences? Are such policies a good idea?
How can people respond to unwanted propositions at conferences?

Feel free to comment below and, if you can, leave timestamps concerning your comments if you comment on particular parts of the video.

Friday Google Hangout with Dan Fincke – venue change

danbhrThe venue of our originally intended discussion concerning feminism and controversies in the atheist/skeptic communities has changed from Brave Hero Radio to Google Hangouts to allow for a more focused debating atmosphere, personal nature, neutral ground, and a platform which may be more accessible and welcoming for prospective listeners.

Tune in live Friday, May 31 at 8:30PM Eastern, on Dan Fincke’s Youtube page, for the public Google Hangouts session. The link will appear shortly before 8:30PM Eastern and live listeners may need to refresh the page. Following the end of the Google Hangouts session, I will post the discussion on my YouTube page, here on Skeptic Ink Network, and promote through social networks.

My speech at 2012 PA State Atheist/Humanist Conference

Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, one of the organizations which made the 2012 PA State Atheist/Humanist Conference a reality, recently uploaded my speech from the conference. Some parts of my speech were read from an essay I had written concerning separation of church and state issues in the state of Pennsylvania in which I have been directly involved with or otherwise impacted in some way.

I spoke about Pennsylvania’s ‘Year of the Bible’ legislation, sectarian governmental prayer in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, coercion of citizens who remain seated for governmental prayer, proposed school voucher programs for religious schools in Pennsylvania, my “Atheists.” bus ad which was rejected on grounds of being ‘controversial’ and ‘an attack on religion,’ and much more.

During the question and answer session, I spoke about handling conflict and how individuals who do not deal well with conflict can contribute to activism, roles people can play in the secular movement, religious school vouchers, styles of atheist activism, and the “Atheists.” bus ad.

Enjoy the speech and, as always, comment below!

Here is the text of the essay which informed this speech:

As a resident of Pennsylvania, it is quite apparent to me that the continual intersection between religion and government interferes with democracy and threatens the Establishment Clause. While religious belief injected into the workings of democracy in Pennsylvania is harmful, it seems especially harmful in an election year when pious politicians pander to religious constituents while lawmakers who might otherwise dissent in cases of governmental wrongs are afraid to dissent. Considering at least four recent Establishment Clause issues in Pennsylvania — legislation declaring 2012 to be “The Year of the Bible,” sectarian governmental prayer, coercion of citizens who dare to remain seated for governmental prayer, and intentions to fund religious schools with taxpayer monies — should convince Pennsylvanians to realize that they need separation of religion and government.

Pennsylvanian lawmakers have recently seemed to neglect section three of Pennsylvania’s state constitution which states, “All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences” and “no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.” A guideline such as this, if followed, would preserve a separation of church and state in Pennsylvania, but it has been ignored.

One particular piece of legislation that seems to be a clear example of religious pandering is the unanimously affirmed House Resolution No. 535, a ‘non-controversial resolution,’ which declared 2012 as “The Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania. Not only did the resolution inform Pennsylvanians of a “national need to study and apply the teachings” of the Bible, but it also included language of – when referring to the Bible – ‘holy scriptures,’ ‘the word of God,’ and noted that “renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people.” ‘The dictates of consciences,’ mentioned in Pennsylvania’s constitution, seem to be trampled upon because this resolution takes sides on theological issues and recommends actions — religious in nature — which Pennsylvanians should undertake.

Another obvious example of religion and government being a dangerous mix is the constant stream of unconstitutional sectarian governmental prayer during House of Representatives sessions. While some governmental prayers may be considered non-denominational, even though they seem to reference Judeo-Christian beliefs, many contain specific references to Christianity; Jesus Christ dying on a cross to save people from sin, Jesus Christ as a ‘Lord and Savior,’ the apostle Paul, ‘God in Heaven,’ and ‘the maker of Heaven and Earth’ are phrases expressed during governmental sessions.

Unconstitutional prayers also exist in a background of coercion directed toward citizens who dare to remain seated during prayer. Individuals, before entering the guest chambers, view a prominent sign which encourages people to stand for prayer. Before the prayer, the house speaker personally asks people to stand. On one occasion in which I had attended a House session, after being aware of requests to stand, I remained silently seated while taking notes in a tablet. An armed security officer had approached me and repeatedly asked me to stand to ‘show respect.’ Two requests — from the house speaker and a sign — were not enough.

Another insidious foray of Pennsylvanian lawmakers concerned a ‘school voucher’ program in which public monies — instead of going to public schools which must provide for children in Pennsylvania regardless of their religious upbringing, religious belief, or religious persuasion of parents — would fund private religious institutions which exist with a primary intention to indoctrinate impressionable minds, compel students to participate in school-led prayer, and teach young earth creationist religious doctrine instead of sound science. The ‘school voucher’ system, if passed, would have been an affront to the state constitution because lawmakers would have given preference to religious establishments – many of which would have been Christian institutions – and compel people to fund religious worship against their natural and indefeasible rights as mentioned in the state constitution.

When I had peacefully protested a rally – holding a sign which called for a separation of church and state — in which pious politicians assembled to urge lawmakers to vote in favor of the school voucher program, I was told — by one of the speakers State Senator Anthony Williams — that I should go back to my ‘community of privilege’ and send my children ‘to whichever school I wanted to whether they be atheist schools or not’. State Senator Williams, talking at me from his podium, became quite angry and said, “By the way, this is my rally, not yours” and “These are our dollars, not just yours. These are our children, not yours. These are our school systems, not yours and by the way, this has nothing to do with separation of church and state.”

In the case of the school voucher rally and the coercion I faced as a result of my remaining seated for governmental prayer, I was made to feel like a political outsider. A climate of divisiveness – pitting citizens against lawmakers acting in pious unconstitutional manners — was created in which I, as a citizen of Pennsylvania, while peacefully objecting to that which I saw as unconstitutional, was poorly treated. If lawmakers were to have remained neutral on matters of religion while acting in their official capacities to serve all citizens, there would have been no divisiveness.

Legislation declaring 2012 to be “The Year of the Bible,” unconstitutional governmental prayer, the coercion of citizens who remain seated for governmental prayer, and school voucher programs aiming to fund religion create a compelling case for freethinkers – and even many religious Pennsylvanians – to be concerned with matters of separation of church and state. Establishment Clause violations are always a problem, but they are especially grievous in election years because pandering pious politicians attempt to gain votes while lawmakers who otherwise would object to Establishment Clause violations may not because they fear losing support of constituents.