Prayer in public meetings common in Kansas

TOPEKA — In Kansas, mixing politics and prayer is commonplace.

Many public meetings start with a prayer or a moment of silence.

In the Statehouse, the House and Senate begin every daily session with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Sometimes the prayers in the Kansas Legislature have stirred up controversy.

Earlier this year, the Rev. James Gordon of St. John Vianney Catholic School in Maple Hill, who was visiting the House, led a prayer that spoke against abortion and same-sex marriage.

House leaders said that the prayer was inappropriate and that they urge those invited to pray to steer clear of politics.

Public displays of religion in the Statehouse have increased since the 2010 election of Gov. Sam Brownback. He has been a visible participant in National Day of Prayer events in the building the past two years, and a room in the Statehouse has been devoted to praying and singing religious songs on the first day of the past two legislative sessions.

Earlier this year, a group planned a three-day “transforming revival” workshop in the Kansas House. Americans for Separation of Church and State criticized the event, and then the organizer moved it to another location because he said there were a greater-than-expected number of participants.

In 2011, Brownback attended a daylong Christian rally of prayer and fasting in Houston at the invitation of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who then was considering a presidential run. Brownback was criticized by a gay rights group because the organizers of the event touted extremely anti-homosexual rhetoric.

There also has been discussion of adding a chapel for prayer and meditation in the Statehouse.

Vickie Sandell Stangl of Andover, who is president of the Great Plains Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said courts have given mixed rulings on government bodies conducting prayers — some saying the act is more historical than religious in nature.

But she said that, “Every public official can pray as often as they wish to themselves, before meetings and after, but they understand that a public display elevates their faith among the public and therefore legitimizes that faith as the one true belief everyone should hold.

“It is not a subtle act but a calculated measure to continue to promote their religion in the public square and bully any citizen into silence who rightly complains that this is not religious freedom, this is religious tyranny by the many.”