Prayers Before Meetings Of Wichita City Council Spark Controversy

Americans United activists in Wichita are speaking out against the city council’s practice of opening its meetings with prayer.

The controversy began in July when Michael Alldaffer, a Humanist, appeared before the council to offer an invocation. Alldaffer’s secular remarks criticized the idea of dividing people along religious and political lines. He concluded by quoting Abraham Lincoln: “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that is my religion.”

Some members of the council were apparently not pleased. Member Sue Schlapp later recited a religious invocation.

“I believe all good flows from our heavenly father,” Schlapp said. “And I’d like to bless this meeting this morning.”

Council member Lavonta Williams added, “We do open the invocation up to all. I don’t think it’s just for us that we’re asking for the prayers. I think that we’re asking that this day be blessed as well. So I for one would like to continue to be blessed before the council meeting.”

But Vickie Sandell Stangl, president of the Great Plains Chapter of Americans United, disagreed.

“There is no good reason to use public time to express private beliefs,” Sandell Stangl told the Wichita Eagle. “The only real purpose seems to be in elevating a public official’s piety before the citizenry.”

Added Sandell Stangl, “If the council continues to offer invocations from only one small segment of Wichita’s rich religious spectrum, this would be an endorsement of religion and a violation of church and state.”

Sandell Stangl later wrote about the controversy in an opinion piece for the Eagle. She criticized the “unprofessional conduct of council member Sue Schlapp and her contempt for the invocation sincerely delivered by Michael Alldaffer.”

Wrote Sandell Stangl, “Clearly, Schlapp thinks only her beliefs are valid. Would her comments have been tolerated or even raised if a rabbi or imam had given the invocation? To offer up her own blessing was tantamount to declaring, ‘My God is better than your humanism.’ It was insulting, and she should apologize.

“All personal religious beliefs are secure and protected under the Constitution, but religious freedom is a two-way street,” continued Sandell Stangl. “Americans cannot expect religious liberty for themselves while imposing their own faith on the public in government meetings.”

She concluded, “We must move away from old cultural traditions keeping us mired in our differences and uphold the greatest gift the founders bequeathed to future Americans: stability against sectarian strife by establishing the separation of church and state.”