Atheists object to Antrim prayer; plan to visit Greencastle Borough Council

PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot

The atheists who visited the Greencastle-Antrim school board in August accepted the invitation of a township supervisor to attend Antrimís meeting Aug. 28. Fred Young III extended the offer after Carl Silverman and Ernest Perce V told the school board to stop praying before meetings, as such action was unconstitutional.

Young, chairman of the Antrim Township Board of Supervisors, opened the meeting with prayer, as usual. He selected an historical prayer used in the first session of the Continental Congress in 1774. He, board members James Byers, Pat Heraty, Rick Baer and John Alleman, along with the audience, then recited The Pledge of Allegiance.

During the phrase 'one nation, under God', Silverman and Perce loudly skipped ahead to 'indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.' The assembly continued on pace with the traditional version.

Silverman, treasurer and Capital area director of PA Nonbelievers, based in York, spoke on behalf of atheists, agnostics, humanists and free-thinkers during public comment.

"I wish I could say prayer is totally unconstitutional here, but it's not. It is at the school."

He continued that sectarian prayers were not allowed though. The Supreme Court had ruled in the 1980s that specific deities such as Jesus, Father or Lord could not be named. He had requested and received audio tapes of the board's meetings for the past year, and most of them contained sectarian prayer.

"The right thing to do is ask for a moment of silence," said Silverman. "That's respectful to all citizens, but I can't say you have to do that because the Supreme Court hasn't said you have to do that."

Perce, Enola, state director of American Atheists, said in his 17 years as a charismatic minister, he never set foot in government chambers, out of respect of the citizens who were not followers of Jesus. As an atheist now, he cared about the issue more than ever. He asked the supervisors to stop praying.

"Don't pray to any God or inclusive religion. Do what's right. It's an act of pride, an act of absolute defiance of citizens. Please consider those who don't follow the Bible."

Both were concerned that a high school student sat on the board, stating later it muddied the water on what was legal.

Approximately 20 people attended the meeting for various reasons, with 10 anticipating the issue of prayer to surface. Duane Kinzer supported the board's policy, and said if necessary, people could pray from the audience. John Helfrick spoke of Daniel in the Old Testament, who was forbidden to pray, did anyway and God took care of him.

"In these days we need to pray mightily. He'll shut the mouths of lions."

Carolyn Snyder and Ray Martin also supported the board, believing in a God who answered prayer.

Young responded that he had interpreted the courts' rulings the same as Silverman, and prayer at a township meeting was acceptable.

"As long as I'm chairman, I have no intention of stopping."

Solicitor John Lisko had no comment on the issue.

The atheist beliefs

Silverman and Perce spoke of their religious background outside of the meeting room. Silverman, from a Jewish family, refused to participate in a Bar Mitzbah or any other traditions.

"Ever since I heard the story of Noah's Ark, I thought, 'This is BS'."

Perce said while a member of the clergy, he saw terrible things happen. He obtained his license from Mercy and Grace after studying at its Bible training center. His experience in the field was not positive in the long run.

"The church doesn't show the love of Christ," he said. "It shows hate as they did here tonight. I began to ask questions; they were pretty profound."

He once faced Jack Van Impe, a noted television evangelist, in a Bible quiz, and won, he said.

"I know the Bible and all the tricks. The contradictions crushed my faith. There's no promise of tomorrow. The Bible is either inspired and without error, or a falsity."

Perce quoted verses to residents who criticized his stance as they left the meeting.

He chuckled that Mercy and Grace would not revoke his license. They still hoped he would come back into the fold.

Silverman said Greencastle Borough Council was next on the list.