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.

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