The religious atmosphere in the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives has drawn fire from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation's largest state-church watchdog.
FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker wrote complaint letters March 20 to House Speaker Mike O'Neal and Senate President Steve Morris about several constitutional violations in their respective legislative bodies.
The House, which regularly opens sessions with prayer, saw one get completely out of hand March 15 when Fr. James Gordon of St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Maple Hill, delivered a controversial sectarian prayer against abortion rights and gay rights. He delivered this prayer “in Jesus’ name” and referenced political concerns despite House policy and practice prohibiting those types of prayers and references. Excerpts from Gordon's sermon, which started with "Heavenly Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth," to the House:
• "We ask you to strengthen our understanding of traditional marriage: one man and one woman. We ask you to bring us back to virtuous morals in society, morals that kept us from killing a child in the womb through abortion. We ask you to defend us now in the fight for true religious freedom and freedom of conscience, that seems to be threatened now in the public sphere."
• "We ask you to keep us one nation under God, and not one nation without God. We thank you for these men and women here whom we know you have blessed by giving them this awesome responsibility. We ask you for the necessary graces for them and bring many blessings upon them. We ask all this through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you forever and ever. Amen.”
FFRF's letter notes that the anti-abortion homily "was not issued in a vacuum. It was intended to influence legislators. This prayer was given in the context of a sweeping state anti-abortion bill, considered on of the broadest attacks on abortion rights under consideration by a state legislature. The day after this anti-abortion tirade, the full state House adopted an amendment to the state budget to prohibit state money from being used on abortions and banning state workers from performing abortions during the workday."
FFRF credited House leaders for publicly recognizing the prayer was out of bounds but said more is needed. "This controversy should be a learning experience for the House. The Kansas Legislature ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement that excludes some citizens."
Local observers of the prayers to open Senate sessions noted that all but one in 2012 have ended “in Jesus’ name” or a variation thereof. Senate Chaplain Fred Hollomon, in the job for 30 years, appears to almost always end prayers with “in the name of Jesus Christ.” The review of prayers also shows Pastor Hollomon also has quite the imagination:
• “Heavenly Father, I wonder what Jesus would do if He were a member of the Kansas Senate. . . . The last time He was on earth, He completed only three years of His term! And that was to benefit others. I pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The pastor artfully transformed dogma into doggerel Jan. 11:
• . . . My tenure has been 30 years,
And I really like my job.
Six Senate presidents have I served,
None called me snob or slob.
We know You are our Boss, O God,
And we serve You above all;
Give us prayers the people need,
We are at Your beck and call.
I pray in the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Gaylor and Barker reminded Kansans that America was founded in part by refugees seeking freedom from government dictation of religion. "These refugees wanted freedom from a government telling them which church to support, what religious rituals to engage in, or what to believe or disbelieve."
The entirely secular U.S. Constitution's only reference to religion is exclusionary, that there shall be no religious test to hold office.
"Citizens electing to attend or participate in government meetings should not be subjected to Christian-based, or even nondenominational prayer," the letter said.
"To avoid the constitutional concerns these prayers create and the divisiveness these prayers cause within the community the solution is simple: Discontinue official, government prayers before legislative meetings. We request a prompt response in writing about what steps you are taking to respect the Establishment Clause and remedy these constitutional violations."
Last week, FFRF revealed similar violations in the Oklahoma Legislature.