An address to city council concerning prayer before its meetings
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Made by Justin Vacula on July 16, 2013
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 governmentled 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 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.
Justin Vacula, Exeter
Thanks for publishing.
Entirely reasonable and logical; therefore it cannot be tolerated.