TOPEKA — Whether a representation of Kansas heritage, or an erosion of the separation of church and state, the Capitol Prayer and Meditation Room moved one step closer to fruition Wednesday.
The state House approved a bill creating a room within the state Capitol for prayer and reflection. Six other states, including Florida and Arizona, and the U.S. Congress have set aside capitol space for prayer.
“It seems to me like a very good place to do his (God’s) work,” said Rep. Bill Otto, R-LeRoy. “... this place for me is not a place just of meditation but a place of celebration that Kansas has a very rich history of religion and its faith.”
House majority leader Rep. Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe, who proposed the bill, had originally named the room the All Faiths Chapel, but the name was later changed because of worries that the word “chapel” would violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
However, representatives spent little time discussing the separation of church and state on the house floor – some representatives opposed the bill because of concerns that certain groups would have access to use the room.
“There is one little elephant in the room that hasn’t been addressed tonight that slipped my mind: that is the Westboro Baptist Church right here in Topeka,” said Rep. Sean Gatewood, D-Topeka. “They have already decided to send in a letter to the editor saying that if we have this open that is absolutely their right to be here. That is really a problem I don’t want to have.”
Other representatives argued that the state should not be scared of one or two groups.
”If he (Fred Phelps) comes down here, certain people, I will be one, will be glad to volunteer and be praying for him,” said Otto. “If enough of us take enough time to pray for him maybe he will change or decide it’s not worth the time. We should not be backing down because of a certain group of people who have run around and shamed the state.”
According to the bill, the prayer room will be built using private funds donated to the state treasury. All donors’ names will be kept confidential. Religious books could be allowed in the room.
The bill does not list a location within the Capitol for the room but Siegfreid said Gov. Sam Brownback was willing to have the chapel in one of his administration’s offices on the second floor of the Statehouse. The Capitol visitor center has also been suggested as a possible location for the room, once remodeling is completed.
If the bill becomes law it will be the second time that the Kansas Capitol has had a space designated for prayer. According to Siegfreid, the Capitol previously had a prayer room in the 1960s before the room was remodeled for administrative offices in the early 1970s.
The bill will now move on to the Senate.