A prayer kicks off almost every Wichita City Council meeting. It’s called an “invocation,” but it’s nearly always a prayer — until today, when the invocation was instead a short speech centered on the separation of church and state.
Council member Sue Schlapp quickly blessed the meeting after the Pledge of Allegiance since the invocation didn’t. Debate ensued during the public comment period a few minutes later.
“There is no good reason to use public time to express private beliefs,” Vickie Sandell Stangl said after the unconventional invocation and Pledge of Allegiance. “The only real purpose seems to be in elevating a public official’s piety before the citizenry.”
Sandell Stangl is the president of the Great Plains Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. She said council members are free to pray before meetings or any other time that isn’t during public business. “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,” she said.
Council members seemed to disagree — and they broke from their usual line of not responding to public comment at the start of meetings.
"We do open the invocation up to all,” Council member Lavonta Williams said. “I don't think it's just for us that we're asking for in the prayers. I think that we're asking that this day be blessed as well. I for one would like to continue to be blessed before our meeting."
Mayor Carl Brewer said Interfaith Ministries coordinates who will give invocations, so the city doesn’t spend time and money on it. "It's a very diverse community and our prayer or our openings reflect that," he said. "City hall is everyone's city hall no matter what your beliefs are."
Council member Paul Gray said all societies have religion and that it has a place in public life. As he spoke, Sandell Stangl approached the podium to respond. Gray preempted that, saying: “And, ma’am, this is not an open debate.”
"I think the majority of the country does not have a problem as long as everybody gets fair representation," he continued.