Christian workshop moved from Kansas House chamber

The organizer of a training workshop for dozens of evangelical pastors and church leaders said Wednesday that he has moved the event out of the Kansas House because of the expected number participants, but he rejected a national group’s charge that it would improperly mix government with religion.

Organizer Dave DePue said the three-day “transforming revival” workshop will be held this week at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, a few blocks from the Statehouse, because 180 people want to participate, more than the floor of the House chamber can accommodate comfortably.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based group Americans for Separation of Church and State, had criticized the event, saying he has never heard of a working legislative chamber in a statehouse being used to promote Christianity or any religion.

“This is almost like turning the seat of government over temporarily to a religious group,” said Lynn, an ordained United Church of Christ minister. “It’s startling to me to even hear about it.”

DePue said the event won’t have a political agenda but will focus on helping pastors and other church leaders strengthen community work in tough economic times. He is state director for Capitol Commission, a Raleigh, N.C., nonprofit group that puts pastors in statehouses to advise policymakers.

“I wouldn’t last a day up here if I got political,” said DePue, who frequently visits the Statehouse. “The whole purpose is to help families, churches and communities.

The Legislature’s policies allow nonprofit groups to use committee rooms and the House or Senate chamber if at least one lawmaker sponsors the event. The policies don’t preclude events with religious themes but say a group generally can’t limit participation based on race, ethnicity, religion or gender, and the event is supposed to educate participants about the legislative process.

Organizers of the event in the House chamber describe it as a “beginner’s course” for Christians interested in transforming their community through a spiritual revival. Workshop sessions are scheduled for Thursday and Friday evening and all day Saturday, with participants paying $100 per person or $190 per couple.

Legislators have allowed Christian prayer meetings at the Statehouse regularly in recent years, and Gov. Sam Brownback has participated in National Day of Prayer events the past two years. DePue said Brownback was set to welcome the workshop participants to Topeka.

Also, the state’s Roman Catholic bishops sponsored a rally in June against a federal mandate for health insurance coverage of birth control, drawing thousands of participants. The Statehouse occasionally has been the site of weddings and, in at least one case in recent years, the Senate had a memorial in its chamber for a member who’d died.

But the Legislature’s staff couldn’t remember a case in at least 15 years of an event like the workshop being scheduled for one of the two chambers.

Such workshops are a program of the Sentinel Group, of Lynwood, Wash. On its website, the group calls itself a research agency “helping the Church pray knowledgeably for end-time global evangelization” and promoting “genuine revival and societal transformation.” Its president is listed as teaching the Kansas workshop.

DePue sought the use of the House chamber in May – because, he said, the event is drawing people from across the state. In considering whether to schedule an event in the House or Senate chamber, the Legislature’s staff asks its top leaders whether any of them object, giving them a few days to respond. In the House, none objected to the workshop when notified by letter in July.

The event’s legislative sponsor is House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid, an Olathe Republican, who this year sponsored an unsuccessful proposal to set aside space in the Statehouse for meditation or prayer. He said the event is little different than those sponsored at the Statehouse by other outside groups and will give participants a chance to learn about state government.

“This is a group of people who want to use the House, like a lot of independent groups,” he said. “What it is not is a religious meeting. They may pray, but we pray.”