Several atheists including members of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers and the president of American Atheists voiced their disagreement with Harrisburg mayor Linda Thompson’s participation in and endorsement of a three day period of prayer and fasting this Friday by protesting in front of Harrisburg’s city hall and a church which held a service to conclude the period of prayer and fasting. Thompson believes that prayer and fasting will give her guidance from God in order to balance the budget of Harrisburg.
Jason Fegely, a member of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers’ board of directors, attended the protest and was contacted to comment for this article. Fegely believes that people should protest Linda Thompson because he feels that separation of church and state is important. “Representatives who are elected,” Fegely says, “should represent everyone equally instead of alienating people who aren’t from a specific religion.” One of the main criticisms from atheists was that Thompson was calling for prayer and endorsing religion in her official station as a mayor. Fegley notes that he would not have a problem if Thompson went to church or prayed for Harrisburg in her private time. Fegley objects to Thompson’s endorsements of prayer because they were made in an official capacity while she is supposed to be working for the city instead of endorsing prayer.
Bob Philbin, the acting communications director for Harrisburg, was contacted to comment on the controversy. Philbin says that the prayer and fasting was “not at all exclusionary” because the prayer and fasting was “open to the public and was not just for members of any particular denominations.” When asked to comment on criticism from atheists who said that prayer was exclusive to religious people, Philbin said that non-believers could have participated in other ways such as meditating or participating in moments of silence.
Thompson participated as a speaker in the church service that started at approximately 4 p.m., a time that atheists who protested suspect that she should have been working as an elected offical instead of being in a church. It is unclear whether Thompson was ‘on the clock’ at this time. Perhaps Thompson’s workday had ended, she had taken time off, or had taken a break to participate in the service, but she could have, instead of speaking at a church service, assembled a task force to work on the budget problem or posited another non-religious solution to the financial crisis instead of depending on God for help.
Footage of the church service [and the protests] can be found on the website of Roxbury News under the date of June 24. Speaking at the church service, Thompson said, “I tell God everyday that I am honored that he chose me to be the head of this city and to be able to pray for the people in which God has called me to serve.” Thompson also said that her “goal is to serve God to serve the people. That’s precisely why I’m here [at church] today – to serve God.” Thompson continued, “…prayer has worked for me, it will continue to work as long as I keep my faith and focus on the immenseness of God. I know God is omniscient and omnipresent […] and that’s why I stand here lifting Him up because there is [sic] some things that man can’t do for me that God has shown me he can and I will continue to acknowledge that in all the things I do.” When leaving the church service, reporters asked Thompson if she would make a comment addressing the critics who claim that she is blurring the line between the separation of church and state. Thompson replied saying, “God bless ’em.”
Brian Fields, another member of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers who attended the protests and was contacted to comment on this article, believes that Thompson is “using her office for religious purposes” and is making an “obvious attempt to pander to voters.” David Silverman, president of American Atheists, says that people should not give Thompson “a bye” by simply ignoring what he believes is an obvious violation of separation of church and state. Silverman, commenting for this article, noted that Thompson is “doing this as a public spectacle, diverting attention, and trying to keep her job using Christianity.” Silverman says that many non-theistic people in Pennsylvania should be active in protests like this and object to political officials mixing religion into their daily work.
Citizens of Harrisburg and elsewhere undoubtedly anticipate the future and wonder if the prayer and fasting endorsed by Thompson will fix the budget problems in Harrisburg. A major problem, though, is that one can not establish a causal connection between the prayer and whatever will happen in the future for Harrisburg; if Harrisburg’s financial problems are fixed, it is impossible to link the prayer to the economic turnaround. Fields notes that Thompson “can’t lose when putting it in God’s hands because if the financial problem is not fixed, Thompson can say it was God’s will or claim that she did her best by asking God for help.” Silverman and other atheists have a alternative solution to the financial problem of Harrisburg that Thompson did not consider: “tax the churches.”
Members of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society, a group of atheists in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, were astonished to hear the news of the events in Harrisburg at their monthly meeting which took place on June 25. Some members mentioned that prayer must not have worked for Thompson in the past because the city of Harrisburg is currently in a financial crisis. Why would Thompson expect prayer to work in the future if it had not worked in the past? Why also, are so many members of Harrisburg tolerating Thompson’s actions? Co-organizer Rodney Collins noted that there are many non-believers in Pennsylvania who should be objecting to public officials mixing religion with politics, but many simply are not allowing their voices to be heard.