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Atheists take official's 'go to hell' remark with humor, disappointment

Sedgwick County commissioner tells atheists 'to go to hell'

In response to a demand that an atheist be allowed to give the invocation at a Sedgwick County meeting, Commissioner Dave Unruh says they can go to hell. Commissioner Richard Ranzau agrees.
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In response to a demand that an atheist be allowed to give the invocation at a Sedgwick County meeting, Commissioner Dave Unruh says they can go to hell. Commissioner Richard Ranzau agrees.

When a Sedgwick County commissioner said atheists who want to deliver an invocation at commission meetings can “go to hell,” it set off a storm of criticism.

Some of the critics were atheists, many of whom met the remarks with a mixture of humor and anger.

“I heard they're not so closed minded in hell. And there's less Police per capita than Wichita so it can't be all bad,” one person remarked online.

“Some one needs to tell this guy that atheists don't believe in Hell and that's literally the point,” commented another.

Jake Stewart, a Wichita native who now lives in Arkansas, said he and other atheists have become jaded by disparaging remarks.

The only thing to do, he said, is to laugh it off.

“I guess if I could narrow it down to one feeling it would be embarrassment,” Stewart said. “We are not holding our elected officials to any higher standard than bullies on a playground. Even if in his heart he believes that, he should still have the forethought to not say it as an elected official.”

Commissioner David Unruh made the remarks during a county staff meeting in reaction to a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group that fights for separation of church and state. The foundation accused the county of violating the Constitution by denying an atheist the chance to speak during the invocation period at commission meetings.

"If you don't believe in (God), that's fine with me," Unruh said. "I don't care, go to hell. It's fine."

Commissioner Richard Ranzau then encouraged Unruh’s remarks.

In response to a demand that an atheist be allowed to give the invocation at a Sedgwick County meeting, Commissioner Dave Unruh says they can go to hell. Commissioner Richard Ranzau agrees.

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The Wichita Eagle has written about county prayers before, including concerns that they excluded atheists and other non-Christians.

Unruh could not be reached Friday afternoon.

Alex Simmons, president of Wichita Oasis, a "community beyond belief" focused on atheists, humanists and agnostics, said she was shocked that an atheist wouldn’t be allowed to give the invocation. People have approached her about giving secular invocations in the past and she always said no, but she always assumed it would at least be “grumblingly allowed.”

“Obviously I assumed wrong,” she said.

Mike Marlett, an atheist who lives in Wichita, said the incident highlights how offensive it is to have prayer at the beginning of a public meeting.

“No atheist wants to sit there and listen to have someone have a prayer and nobody who’s religious wants to sit there and hear an atheist talk about atheism,” Marlett said. “And that’s OK. This is not a forum for religious discussion.”

Many responses online focused on atheists not believing in hell.

“Don't believe in it, so probably not,” one person wrote.

James Knoll, an atheist who lives in Reno County, said his first thought when he heard the remarks was that it was “kind of hilarious.”

“How can you tell somebody to go to a place they don’t believe in?” he said.

At the same time, he was offended, he said, and would like to see Unruh give a formal apology.

Secular invocations usually focus on general themes of goodness and progress, things everyone agrees on, said Jamar Martin, a leader of Wichita Atheists.

They’re not meant to indoctrinate, he said.

“I understand that he has specific beliefs that he feels strongly about, but not allowing other people to participate in governing proceedings doesn’t really help him in that manner,” Martin said. “That and it's pretty blatantly illegal.”



Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @kathsburgess



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