When an atheist lawmaker offered the daily prayer—if it can even be called that—at the Arizona House of Representatives, a Christian lawmaker demanded a do-over.
Republican Rep. Steve Smith on Wednesday said the prayer offered by Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, at the beginning of the previous day’s floor session wasn’t a prayer at all, and because of that asked other members to join him in a second daily prayer of “repentance”—about half of the 60-member body complied. Both the Arizona House and Senate begin their sessions with a prayer and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
“When there’s a time set aside to pray and to pledge, if you are a non-believer, don’t ask for time to pray,” said Smith, of Mendez. “If you don’t love this nation and want to pledge to it, don’t say I want to lead this body in the pledge, and stand up there and say, ‘you know what, instead of pledging, I love England’ and (sit) down.
“That’s not a pledge, and that wasn’t a prayer, it’s that simple,” Smith said.
Mendez said he saw the prayer as an opportunity express his own feelings like other members do when they take the rotation to give the daily prayer.
“I wanted to find a way to where I could convey some message and take advantage of the opportunity that people have when they offer these prayers,” he said. “If my lack of religion doesn’t give me the same opportunity to engage in this platform then I feel kind of disenfranchised. So I did want to stand up and offer some kind of thing that represented my view on what's going on.”
Wednesday’s conflict comes just days after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether an upstate New York town is violating the Constitution by opening public meetings with prayer. The justices will review an appeals court ruling that held that the town of Greece, a Rochester suburb, violated the constitutional prohibitions on government sanction of religion by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that trended Christian.
Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin and Senate President Andy Biggs filed a legal brief agreeing with the town's position.
On Wednesday, Tobin said he took no issue with Mendez's prayer.
“From my perspective I didn't see an issue with Mr. Mendez yesterday,” said Tobin, R-Paulden. “I can appreciate what Mr. Smith was saying, but I think all members are responsible for their own prayerful lives and I think the demonstration that we take moments for prayer we all do collectively and in our own hearts.”
The complete text of Mendez’s “prayer” is below:
“Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask you not to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.
“This room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my Secular Humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.
“Carl Sagan once wrote, ‘For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.’ There is, in the political process, much to bear. In this room, let us cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our state, for our Constitution and for our democracy—and let us root our policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans regardless of religious belief or nonbelief. In gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion, let us work together for a better Arizona.”