WICHITA, Kan. – Local government officials in the second most populous county in Kansas are grappling with a challenge by atheists to a decades-old practice of opening meetings with prayer, prompting a Sedgwick County Commissioner to say during a public meeting Tuesday that if they don't believe in God, he doesn't care if they "go to hell."
Sedgwick County commissioners planned to meet with their attorney behind closed doors in the wake of a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group based in Madison, Wisconsin, that advocates for separation of church and state.
Sedgwick County spokeswoman Kate Flavin said Wednesday that no decision has been made and the group's request is still under review, adding that the county believes its existing policy strikes the "proper constitutional balance."
The Wichita Eagle reports that the foundation has accused the county government of violating the Constitution by denying an atheist resident the opportunity to speak during the time the commission sets aside for its opening prayer each week.
During a county commission meeting, Commissioner David Unruh mused about whether commissioners were going to get sued by "those people who want us not to believe in God."
"I just keep wondering why are you so exercised about trying to prove to me something doesn't exist? I mean, it's logically stupid," Unruh said. "If you don't believe (in God) that's fine with me. I don't care, go to hell. It's fine."
Commissioner Richard Ranzau, a frequent critic of his fellow commissioner, laid a hand on his shoulder.
"That sounds like something I'd say," said Ranzau. "Go Dave go!"
The Freedom From Religion Foundation hasn't decided to sue the county over the issue, but it might, its lawyer, Chris Line, said.
"Honestly, I am shocked by the comments that they made," Line said. "It does sound like they're blatantly violating the law,"
A county policy against giving atheists a chance to deliver the invocation is unconstitutional, he said, contending it is discriminatory because it limits the opportunity to deliver the invocation to religious leaders or clergy members of a religious group with an established presence in Sedgwick County.
County Manager Michael Scholes said commissioners will have a closed session Wednesday to consult with attorneys on the prayer issue.
For decades, the county has invited local religious leaders to open commission meetings with prayer, a practice that was largely uncontroversial until last year when activists opposed to a proposed chicken processing plant started regularly attending meetings and questioned it.
The foundation became involved after the county denied a request from a county resident who is an atheist to give the meeting invocation.
The conservative majority on the five-member Sedgwick County Commission has often attracted public attention after voting to cut recreation, the arts, culture, and the health department. Commissioners approved a resolution last year asking the Kansas Legislature to stop people living in the U.S. illegally from receiving in-state tuition or from receiving nutritious food through a federal program.