WILKES-BARRE — Justin Vacula wants to talk with the members of Wilkes-Barre City Council, but he doesn’t think they’re listening.
Vacula, 25, said he plans to take another shot at capturing the council’s attention Thursday, when he reads a “secular invocation” during the public comment period of its next meeting.
The invocation, he said, will be offered as an alternative to the Christian prayer traditionally given at the opening of meetings and will not be intended to offend or insult any religious individuals or their beliefs.
“It’s going to be inclusive, and something that applies to everyone,” said Vacula, the leader of an area group that promotes atheism.
Originally, he wanted the chance to read his invocation at the beginning of a meeting, he said, but the council told him it does not allow the public to speak during the opening.
His goal, he said, is to open “respectful discourse” in a community he said is split on the inclusion of prayer in meetings. Some believers he has spoken to, he said, find the opening prayer blasphemous because of the dishonesty in government.
Councilman Tony George said Vacula’s complaint is the first he has heard regarding the prayer during his three years on the council.
The short prayer, he said, has always opened the meetings.
“That’s tradition,” he said, “since the beginning of the constitution, and that hasn’t really changed.”
Allotted five minutes
George said he has no problem with Vacula or anyone else delivering any prayer or invocation during the public-comment period.
“Everybody gets five minutes and you can do what you want with that five minutes,” George said, adding, “as long as it’s not disruptive to the meeting.”
At this time, he said, all the members of the City Council identify as Christians, so they chose a Christian prayer to open their meetings.
“If someone from the council wanted to add something else to it, that’s also fine,” he said.
Still, since he began voicing his concerns at meetings in 2013, Vacula said, the council has been steadfast in dismissing him.
“They really haven’t budged on the matter at all,” he said.
If the council will not discard the opening prayer, Vacula said, he hopes it will begin inviting representatives of local religious groups to diversify the prayers and invocations offered.
“While I might disagree with their perspective, I find it important that the meetings be more inclusive,” he said.
Wilkes University associate professor of political science Kyle Kreider said a town board in Greece, New York, does just that, and the Supreme Court recently upheld its right to do it.
To find a religious official to give a prayer at its meetings, Kreider said, “they just went through the phone book.” This assured, he said, that all religious groups in the area would eventually be represented.
When a group challenged the tradition, the Supreme Court found no issue with the town’s practice as long as it preserved diversity, he said.
But that doesn’t clear every prayer tradition.
“The legality of the prayer tends to ride on the facts of the case,” Kreider said. “If the Wilkes-Barre City Council is only allowing one person or inviting one person, there may be a problem.”
Especially, he said, if the prayer comes with a “coercive aspect,” such as an understanding that everyone in attendance must stand or participate, an expectation George told Vacula he does not hold during the May 29 meeting.
Vacula said this isn’t the first time the city has treated him unfairly.
In response to this year’s Circle the Square with Prayer event, held May 1 in concert with the National Day of Prayer, he said he approached the city about hanging a banner on the scaffolding structure in Public Square.
Provided by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the banner read “Nothing Fails Like Prayer.” The city hung the banner (three days after the agreed upon date, he said), but placed it on the reverse side of the scaffolding, away from the “National Day of Prayer” banner and out of sight of the event Vacula said it was meant to oppose.
When he asked why his banner was hung this way, City Administrator Marie McCormick told him the prayer group had rented the entire square for its event, necessitating that his banner be displayed where it was.
And when asked why some banners would be hung on the front with the pro-prayer banner, including “May is Mental Health Month,”while his was alone on the back, he said McCormick offered little more than, “Sometimes we just do that.”
Following the conversation, he said city workers moved the banner to the front.
Seeing a political reaction
Jonathan Malesic, associate professor of theology at King’s College, said he might understand why individuals in government to publicly back religion.
“There’s a kind of public reward for presenting a Christian identity,” Malesic said.
When one promotes such an identity, he said, it plays to a false, yet popular perception of oppression in American Christian culture. The idea that an increasingly secular society is persecuting Christians or trying to ban Christianity, he said, adds to the importance of public figures standing up in defense of the religion.
He said politicians who make such moves often stand to gain at the polls, but he can’t speak to the motivations of members of the Wilkes-Barre City Council.
“I have no reason to think they’re anything but sincere Christians,” he said.
Vacula said he’s not frustrated, upset or angry with the city. He said he has learned better in his five years of activism.
“I understand that it’s quite the uphill battle,” he said, and he doesn’t expect overnight change, but he maintains that the Wyoming Valley is a diverse place.
Vacula is the spokesperson and co-organizer of the NEPA Freethought Society. He said he grew up in a Christian household and began questioning his beliefs in college.
The Exeter activist entered the region’s spotlight when he petitioned the ACLU regarding the constitutionality of the nativity display outside the Luzerne County Courthouse in 2009. He said he endured much “name-calling and nastiness” for his actions, and one area disc-jockey called him the county’s third most hated person.
He also has been a subject of scrutiny from various groups on the Internet, he said.