Tuesday, February 14, 2012


HARRISBURG—The unanimous passage of a contentious religious resolution in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is the latest example of the Pennsylvania legislature’s lack of respect for the diversity of its taxpaying citizens---as well as continued evidence of its failure to enact important reforms demanded following the infamous legislative pay raise scandal of 2005, according to a good-government group, Concerned Atheist Tax Payers Organization of Pennsylvania (CATPO).

House Resolution 535 (HR 535), proclaiming 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 193-0 on January 24th, after being introduced one day earlier. It avoided any committee scrutiny by being deemed “noncontroversial” by House Speaker Sam Smith and Minority Leader Frank Dermody.

After public outrage from across the religious, secular, and anti-religious spectra, at least two House members—who voted for the resolution-- are now advocating its repeal. “They claim they were ‘distracted’ by their re-election efforts, and that the resolution was ‘buried’ with many less consequential resolutions,” said Carl Silverman of Camp Hill, organizer of CATPO. “But what they aren’t likely to tell you, is that they were sent a memo on November 1st by resolution sponsor Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Jefferson Hills), describing the nature of the resolution and seeking cosponsors. That was almost three months prior to the resolution’s introduction. And that should have raised a big red flag, especially among the more progressive members of the House. So they deserve little sympathy. They are hired by the taxpayers to pay attention, not to run for re-election.”

“The motion to repeal this resolution is too little, too late. The damage has been done. Perhaps a greater issue is why the legislature wastes its precious time on ‘noncontroversial resolutions’ to begin with. They need to start fixing Pennsylvania’s dangerous bridges, rather than passing resolutions naming those bridges,” Silverman said.

“Members of the legislature continue to vote on items that they haven’t even read carefully,” Silverman said. “And they continue to prohibit cameras in the visitors galleries, so that the public would be able to witness the inattention of the members during their sessions—often they are chatting, texting, reading magazines, playing solitaire, just about anything but paying attention to what’s going on.”

“And their TV cameras, which provide a feed to their websites and to the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN) are fixed, so to prevent taxpayers from seeing how many members are present and what they are doing during the session.”

“Their videos are not archived on the internet, and, last I checked, PCN can not release copies without the permission of the legislature. And the minutes of their meetings, known as ‘Legislative Journals’ are usually not posted on the internet until many weeks or months later,” Silverman said. “These issues were brought to public attention during the pay raise scandal, but nothing has changed.”

Of particular concern to atheists and free-speech advocates is the treatment of visitors to the House visitors gallery. “The House’s armed guards continue to harass any visitor who doesn’t stand up for the opening prayer and/or the Pledge of Allegiance. They haven’t arrested or ejected anyone that we know of, but they shouldn’t even be approaching any visitor who silently remains seated—it is the visitor’s Constitutional right to do so, and they should respect that right without any interrogation or intimidation.”

“As for the prayers themselves,” Silverman continued, “non-sectarian prayers are, regrettably, Constitutionally permissible, but often the prayers delivered by “guest chaplains” in both the Senate and House are unabashedly Christian—and that’s a problem that church/state activist groups have their eye on for possible legal action.”

“Atheist/humanist leaders have not been invited to deliver opening prayers or invocations, and the Senate explictly rejected such a proposal from two Senators in the past. This needs to change, if they are going to continue to allow ‘guest chaplains’ to deliver sectarian prayers.”

“In some respects, we appreciate the passing of HR 535, because it gives us an opportunity to bring the arrogant culture of the Pennsylvania legislature into the public spotlight once again. The idea of a ‘Year of the Bible’ will backfire on the House, as atheist groups throughout Pennsylvania intend to exploit that theme throughout 2012, highlighting the aspects of the Bible that should be embarrassing to any sane, law-abiding citizen in the 21st Century,” Silverman said.

CATPO is a grassroots group of atheist taxpayers, based in central Pennsylvania. In 2009, CATPO was one of several good-government organizations that protested the distribution of tax-funded holy books for “swearing-in” ceremonies of state legislators, sponsoring a “Bible Give-Back Day” at the Capitol. The House has since reportedly turned over such holy book distribution to a private fundraising group.

Silverman, a long-time church/state activist, was a founding director of PACleanSweep, Inc., a political group formed in response to the 2005 legislative pay raise, and a co-plaintiff in Common Cause’s federal lawsuit against the pay raise. In addition to CATPO, he currently serves on two other regional atheist organizations.

Friday, July 31, 2009

PUC holds hearing in church; sets precedent to allow atheist symbols

On Tuesday, July,28, 2009, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission held a public hearing in the Harrisburg area on the rate increase application filed by Pennsylvania-American Water Company. This was only one of a series of hearings scheduled on this matter throughout the Commonwealth. Here's a list of the hearings.

When I learned that the Harrisburg-area hearing was to be held in a Christian church, I looked at the church's website to familiarize myself with what the interior of the building looked like. I called the PUC and voiced a compliant to the woman in charge of scheduling the hearings. According to her, the PUC was contacted by Rep. Ron Marsico whose district includes East Hanover Township. Marsico, at the request of one of his constituents, requested that the PUC hold the Harrisburg-area meeting in that township. Apparently, they wanted a venue with a capacity of 100 persons, and allegedly there are only two such venues in that township: the township recreation hall, and the Capital Bible Church. The recreation hall, according to the PUC rep, was not available for the target date; apparently the PUC needed a particular date due to the limited availability of the participants. (I think it's interesting that the chosen location is particularly convenient to the utility company reps whose office is in Hershey, but not very convenient for the many people from Camp Hill who have suffered numerous water main breaks due to the utility's irresponsible pressure increases.) She said that the church offered the meeting space to the PUC at no charge.

I registered my objection, and asked, rhetorically, if the church would be willing to cover up any religious symbols in the meeting hall for the duration of the meeting. She suggested I call the church. I decided not to call the church because this situation really wasn't the church's fault, but rather the PUC's. The PUC should never have sought space in a church in the first place, except perhaps in a true emergency or disaster situation, and since the church was providing the space gratis, I didn't feel it was right to ask them to cover up their own symbols.

I showed up at the church on Tuesday and found, other than their fancy electronic sign at the highway, a relatively secular (and patriotic) exterior.

Inside, I found what I had seen on the internet plus an additional cross atop a a flagpole. As I had noticed online, the curtain rod did not extend over the cross area, so they could not have easily covered the cross. (What I had not noticed earlier was the fire-alarm pull near the bottom of the cross. Is this what atheists are to use to report a church/state violation? Or just to announce where they are headed?) Click on the photo for a larger view.

A court reporter was present to record everything. When time came to make public comment, the Administrative Law Judge asked if I wanted to be sworn in, so that my remarks would be on the official record. I insisted on an affirmation rather than an oath, and the ALJ obliged. The regular oath did NOT contain the G-word, but, to me, the concept of "swearing" implies the G-word.

Before delivering my comments about the water company, I told the ALJ that I was lodging a formal objection to the selection of a church for a government meeting; especially a venue that had such a prominent religious symbol visible. I also called it "an execution device." I chastised the PUC for kowtowing to a politician when the agency should know better than mix religion with government. I emphasized that I was not criticizing the church management itself and was grateful that they offered the space without charge.

But, I said, now that the PUC has set a precedent, I was insisting that a future West Shore-area meeting allow a giant letter "A" for atheist (in place of the big cross), and, in place of the flag cross, a photo of prominent atheist Brad Pitt, and I said this with a very straight face and told them I was absoutely serious. Now that they had shown favoritism for one religion over others, and for religion over irreligion, I explained, the only way to begin to bring the scales back into balance would be to allow what I demanded.

The ALJ said that he could not promise that the next West Shore meeting would be in a venue where that would be allowed. I responded saying that if I was willing to secure a meeting place in my name, and offer it free to the PUC, they will not be able to object to the A/Pitt decorations.

Stay tuned.

Friday, April 10, 2009