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Kansas: The Surreal State of the State

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The 2014 Kansas legislative session kicked off with more than a prayer -- a prayer fest. For the third consecutive year the Old Supreme Courtroom of the Statehouse was occupied by religious conservatives on the eve of the legislature's opening. Irony bumped up against doctrine.

This year's event was organized by Concerned Women for America and something called the Culture Shield Network. Governor Sam Brownback spoke at this event, but not before the spokeswoman from the Culture Shield Network held forth.

According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, the spokeswoman exhorted the audience to take an active interest in their children's education: "I pray that these children will come out so strong that we will not lose any of them to secular colleges," she said. She also warned against the teaching of evolution and the notion that some of the founding fathers were Deists.

This bizarre scenario wasn't church, this was state -- or at least the Statehouse -- and the constitution that is revered by social conservatives is very firm on the separation of the two. That separation has gone the way of the Passenger Pigeon in Kansas. If not extinct, it is surely endangered.

The separation of church and state was further collapsed during Gov. Brownback's annual State of the State speech. My husband, our 17-year-old son and I set up our TV trays to watch Brownback's speech while we ate dinner. Each time the Governor mentioned God, I raised my hand. I raised it early and often.

After recognizing the House Speaker, conspicuously chewing gum behind him, the Senate President, legislators, cabinet secretaries, and the judiciary, not to mention his fellow Kansans, the Governor pronounced: "As had been foretold and promised to us: God is in Heaven, the Legislature is back and the crane is gone!"

That the restoration of the gorgeous Kansas Statehouse is nearly complete -- thus, the absence of the crane towering over the building -- is definitely a cause for celebration. But the incantatory, religious language of "As had been foretold . . . God is in Heaven" seemed out of place on the occasion of a political address. My hand shot up a few more times as references to the good Lord and God rolled off the Governor's tongue. All in all, Brownback invoked God's name seven times in his half-hour address.

He ended by saying: "Our dependence is not on Big Government but on a Big God that loves us and lives within us."

He said we would discern the correct path because "God wrote it in our hearts."

Piety is on parade at the Kansas Statehouse. Matronly women sport gigantic "Pray" buttons, and the Governor treats his diverse constituency as though the state of Kansas is as homogenous as humble pie. Although Brownback may be blind to diversity, his state of almost three million contains people of little faith, as well as lots of faith. Why, we even have card-carrying atheists. His assumption that all Kansans are ardent Christians is arrogant. And assuming it so frequently in an annual State of the State address tramples on the U.S. Constitution.

Beneath the religiosity and the piety are some hard-nose, bare-knuckle politics.

Former State Senator Dick Kelsey was defeated in 2012 after opposing the Governor's tax and Medicaid policies. He was a Republican conservative but lost to a party challenger reportedly bankrolled by the ultra-right Kansas Chamber of Commerce's political action committee.

After his defeat, Kelsey spoke out. He was quoted in the Topeka daily newspaper as saying the current administration "operates without a moral compass." He talked about Statehouse veterans who had never seen the like of the administration's strong-arm tactics.

He criticized the anti-abortion organization he had helped to form for becoming acquiescent under the thumb of the Governor.

Kelsey was quoted as saying: "That's very sad because it's also the group of people who wave the Christian flag more than anybody has ever done in state government. Yet, they did not operate with any kind of truthfulness or honesty."

The then-head of the Kansas Republican Party was quoted as retorting: "Politics is a contact sport. Everybody knows the rules when they get in."

That bare-knuckled contact sport of politics was on display recently when Sam Brownback's lieutenant governor, Jeff Colyer, a plastic surgeon, padded their re-election campaign account with a $500,000 personal loan so that their campaign officials could boast that Brownback had vastly more cash than his Democratic opponent. Without that hefty loan, Brownback and House Minority Leader Paul Davis had about the same amount in their campaign chests. The only difference: Davis has been an announced candidate only since September. Truthfulness is too often trumped by ruthlessness.

Every day brings a fresh misinterpretation of what constitutes the legislature's business. Last week Topekans unwrapped their newspapers, a week after the State of the State address, on the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, to see a jarring news photograph. A front-page picture showed a technician performing a sonogram on a pregnant woman. The startling part: this happened in a Statehouse room in front of the Kansas Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee and assorted guests. The woman was shielded by a tarp, but the 12-week-old fetus was projected onto a large television screen for the spectators. The pregnant woman, plus one other who underwent a public sonogram, were invited by State Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, who is introducing a bill to ban surrogate pregnancies in Kansas. If you fail to see the connection or the appropriateness of this spectacle, you are not alone.

The state of the state of Kansas is surreal. We no longer have the separation of church and state. We don't even have the separation of Statehouse and sonogram.

The legislature is back, from the lofty to the earthy. The crane is gone, and the circus has begun.

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