The Wichita City Council should have handled an inquiry about its meeting-opening prayers with more care last week, taking steps to ensure that all Wichitans feel represented in the invocations. But the tradition of opening a government meeting with a prayer is as old as the nation itself. And such invocations aren't a problem as long as the opportunity isn't "exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief," as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983.
Such "ceremonial deism" isn't for everybody, though, with nonbelievers viewing the evocation of God as too specific and believers regarding it as too generic.
That was part of the tension highlighted at last week's council meeting by members of the Great Plains Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State — who were trying to make a serious point in asking the council to re-examine the policy of starting regular weekly meetings with a prayer, or at least commit to making the invocations more representative of the community.
Unfortunately, council members declined to take the concern very seriously, instead reacting defensively.
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Mayor Carl Brewer felt the need to undercut Michael Alldaffer's humanist invocation pre-emptively, by inviting people to pray on their own later.
Council member Sue Schlapp then blessed the meeting herself after Alldaffer had spoken. "I'd just like to take a moment to say that I believe all good flows from our Heavenly Father, and I'd like to bless this meeting this morning," Schlapp said.
Member Paul Gray also dismissed church-state concerns as those of " a few people out there."
In the end, the First Amendment concerns of Alldaffer and chapter president Vickie Sandell Stangl appeared to be sloughed off — a bad impression deepened when the council referred the next citizen speaker's complaint, about the loud music of ice-cream trucks, to the city's legal department and asked to be briefed in coming weeks about guidelines and enforcement.
It's OK that the City Council opens its meetings with prayer, and it's good that the city works with Inter-Faith Ministries to arrange the prayers — though, according to Stangl, city staff members sometimes spend time searching for speakers. It's also good that, at least in policy, the council welcomes prayers from different faiths.
Still, the City Council — which is more diverse and representative of Wichita than ever, with two African-Americans and three women among its seven members — needs to be sensitive to the appearance of a lack of diversity regarding how it does business, including how it chooses to begin its meetings.