Atheists who want to deliver an invocation at a Sedgwick County, Kansas Commission meeting can “go to hell,” a county commissioner said Tuesday.
“If you don’t believe in (God), that’s fine with me,” Commissioner David Unruh said during the county staff meeting. “I don’t care, go to hell. It’s fine.”
That comment was in reaction to a letter the county had received from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national group based in Madison, Wis., that fights for separation of church and state, Unruh said.
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.
“Are we going to get sued by these people who want us to not believe in God?” Unruh asked Tuesday. “I just keep wondering why are you (atheists) so exercised about trying to prove to me that something doesn’t exist? It’s logically stupid.”
Commissioner Richard Ranzau laid a hand on his shoulder.
“That sounds like something I’d say,” said Ranzau, who frequently and vocally disagrees with Unruh on county decisions. “Go Dave go!”
County Manager Michael Scholes said commissioners will have a closed session during their meeting Wednesday to consult with attorneys on the prayer issue.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation hasn’t decided to sue the county over the issue, but it might, an attorney for the group said..
Foundation lawyer Chris Line said a county policy against giving atheists a chance to deliver the invocation is unconstitutional.
“Honestly, I am shocked by the comments that they made,” Line said. “It does sound like they’re blatantly violating the law.”
While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that prayers and invocations are acceptable at public meetings, its 2014 ruling in the case Town of Greece N.Y. v. Galloway mandated that the government not exclude or discriminate against any beliefs, Line said.
Greece opened its pre-meeting pulpit to all, including atheists and agnostics, he said.
Line said the Sedgwick County code is discriminatory because it limits the opportunity to deliver the invocation to “reli gious leaders or clergy members of a religious group with an established presence in Sedgwick County.”
“In this case, the town is saying, ‘No, we only want Christian or religious prayers to be given’ and they’re telling atheists no,” he said.
He said the foundation became involved after a county resident who is an atheist asked to give the meeting invocation and was denied by Scholes.
The county has invited local religious leaders to open commission meetings with prayer for decades.
The practice was largely noncontroversial until last year, when activists opposed to a Tyson Chicken plant started attending the meetings regularly and questioned why the county allowed sometimes lengthy religious presentations during its meetings.