Atheists Protest Harrisburg Mayor’s ‘Prayer to Fix the Financial Crisis’ June 25, 2011

Atheists Protest Harrisburg Mayor’s ‘Prayer to Fix the Financial Crisis’

Remember how Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s Mayor Linda Thompson was planning “a three-day fast and prayer campaign to cure the city’s daunting money woes”?

Well, members of the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers were joined by American Atheists president Dave Silverman on Friday during a protest outside Harrisburg’s City Hall:

(Image credit: Shannon Fields)

Justin Vacula has done a nice job covering the issue at He spoke to both the protesters and government officials:

One of the main criticisms from atheists was that Thompson was calling for prayer and endorsing religion in her official station as a mayor. [Pennsylvania Nonbelievers board member Jason] 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.

I would add to what Jason said. My problem isn’t just that she was praying in her capacity as a mayor. I’d be concerned if, even as a private citizen, she thought prayer was a legitimate way to fix her city’s current crisis. It’s not and Thompson needs to find a better solution.

On Friday at 4:00p, a time you would expect Mayor Thompson to be hard at work trying to do something about the problem, she was instead giving a sermon at a local church. (You can see video footage of her speech by clicking on the image on this page.)

“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… [my] goal is to serve God to serve the people. That’s precisely why I’m here [at church] today -– to serve God… 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 this is 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…”

Is she a pastor or a mayor? Either way, she’s pretty damn ineffective as a leader. No wonder the atheists were upset. They want to see her salary going toward something… well… useful.

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.”

What I can’t understand is why there isn’t more of an uproar from the non-atheist crowd. Surely there are theists in Harrisburg who don’t want to see Thompson proselytizing while on the clock and find her actions petty and useless. They’d rather see her tackling the problems, working with experts, and getting the city council to enact realistic solutions. Where are these people? Why weren’t the joining the protest? Why aren’t they visibly angry? (If they are, I’d love to see links about them in the comments.)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • PJB863

    Sadly, she’s accountable only to the voters, and only when running for office – every two or four years, unless there’s a recall mechanism in place.

  • Heidi

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the citizens of Harrisburg chose her to be the head of her city. Did god veto their choice?

  • Richard Wade

    Philbin said that non-believers could have participated in other ways such as meditating or participating in moments of silence.

    Yeah. I think Philbin and is boss would like us to participate in a life long moment of silence.

  • Charles Black

    Let’s be clear here.
    The mayor is obviously either an idiot or completely insane if she really thinks prayer can solve the ‘money woes’. Another reason why religious nutcases need to stay out of office permanently.

  • bla

    We have parents who got jailed for healing with prayer; maybe we will someday get a politicians who get a penalty for healing the finances with magi^C^C^Cprayer.

  • Tom

    The whole point of being mayor is that you have been given the power and authority to solve problems yourself; it’s what you’re expected, nay, required to do. For a mayor to throw up their hands and defer the fixing of problems to an imaginary higher authority via prayer is like someone praying for a ditch to be dug whilst sitting in the cab of an excavator!

    You don’t need to be mayor in order to pray, or to incite anyone else to pray. It’s an utter waste of the whole position. If a mayor wants to pray, throw them out and replace them with someone who’s actually going to make use of the tools that, by no small effort and sacrifice, are made available to the holder of that office.

  • Feather

    I don’t like what the mayor is (and isn’t) doing either, but I’m also not a fan of the protesters bringing along children. It just rubs me the wrong way when people bring along kids, who have no real way of deciding their own opinions, and give them signs to hold.
    I’m just not sure about that.

  • Josh

    Well there’s only one kid in the picture. Maybe they couldn’t find a babysitter?

  • Steve


    Let the kids decide their own opinion on WHAT? Whether or not there is a god? That kid is not learning hate from his parents, so it’s all good with me!

    I think you’re used to seeing kids holding hateful signs (like ‘god hates fags’) at rallies by the ignorant morons. So, I think you’re equating that to a kid at this protest. It’s not the same, though.

    The one child in that photo is not holding any hateful sign. If anything, that kid is learning what democracy OUGHT to be. So I say good for those parents!

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    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.

    O.K. This is where Philbin got the whole “freedom of religion” thing backwards. A government agency leading a xtian prayer, during which you can meditate or pray to your own god, is the complete opposite of a government agency offering a moment of silence that people may use as they see fit (pray, meditate, or listen to Lady Gaga on your Ipod).
    Though I think offering a “moment of silence” is complete crap, anyway….

  • Rich Samuels

    “Philbin said that non-believers could have participated in other ways such as meditating or participating in moments of silence”

    What completely fractured logic. To participate you have to believe in something otherwise how can you justify doing anything anyway? Typical xtain b.s. where they miss the the criticism being levelled at them.

    And how “open” is the participation? What if the local devil worshippers offered to sacrifice the mayor?

  • walkamungus

    Well, if the local devil worshippers sacrificed the mayor, that would be about as useful as prayer. But then the deputy mayor could step in, or the citizens of Harrisburg would have another shot to elect someone with a clue, so maybe it would be *better* than prayer.

  • walkamungus

    i’d be holding up a sign that said, “WORK, DON’T PRAY — it’s what we elected you for.”

    The whole separation argument sounds kind of weird in this context, though. Why not lead with, “Do you think prayer is *really* going to sort out this city’s financial mess?”

  • ernest perce

    I was the organizer or this protest and since the protest on Friday my cars tires have been slashed, my door constantly rang and banged on with people screaming god loves us and either running or wanting to argue. My wife is now leaving her car somewhere else, saddest part is that she is a christian. She is spending the next few nights at her christian friends.

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