The Pennsylvania State Atheist/Humanist Conference takes place in Harrisburg next weekend and organizers have announce that Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson will give the welcoming remarks.
That’s quite a surprising twist…
In 2010, the American Humanist Association sent a letter to Thompson’s office requesting that she stop saying Christian prayers before her staff meetings
… as mayor of the city and chief executive officer of city government, you are the person all other employees must respect and, ultimately, please. By suggesting that you feel it is important to start meetings with a group prayer, you are sending a message of exclusion to any employees who do not participate in that endeavor with you. Such employees no doubt would be concerned about being seen as outsiders, thereby causing them to worry about their status with you.
In the summer of 2011, amid a severe financial crisis, Thompson decided to embark on a three-day “fast and prayer” campaign. Members of the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers and American Atheists’ Dave Silverman even protested outside her office after that:
In case you were curious, the campaign didn’t work:
Ok, back to the present.
Why would Thompson speak to a gathering of atheists?
She was invited, said Brian Fields, president of the PA Nonbelievers, in an email to me:
It’s standard for the mayor of a city to be invited to conferences and other events. We decided that it would be entirely appropriate to invite her, for many reasons. First, she is the mayor. Second, if she did accept, it would signify that the atheist community was being treated like everyone else — Which is a good thing. Third, perhaps we will have the opportunity to share our point of view. Fourth, the press doesn’t hurt.
We didn’t expect her to accept, but it’s because of her history most of all that we are glad she did. It’s one thing to get people who agree with you, quite another to be recognized by those who don’t.
It is our understanding that she intends to give a standard mayoral greeting. We hope she sticks around when she is done.
It’s likely she’ll just welcome atheists to her town and leave, but it’d be fascinating if she addressed her own faith while giving her talk. It’s like Mitt Romney speaking to the NAACP — you give him some credit for showing up but you don’t really expect the audience to take him very seriously.
Hopefully, the atheists in the audience will treat the mayor with respect. It’d be bad press for everybody if our crowd booed a Christian just for having the audacity to show up.