Fighting For Religious Freedom In Arizona With An Invocation

Yesterday, Arizona state Rep. Athena Salman stood before her colleagues and offered an invocation. At first, it appeared to be just like any other day in the statehouse, where the House always opens its session with a prayer. But then Rep. Mark Finchem stood up, alleged that the prayer violated House rules and asked to give a substitute prayer. Finchem’s objection: Salman is an atheist and her prayer did not speak to what he understood to be a higher power.

Salman “believe[s] in the power of humanity to do good in the world" rather than a “supernatural God” and “goodness and humanity” is the higher power she appealed to in her invocation. The House Majority Leader and Speaker agreed with Finchem, however, and in an act of religious discrimination, ruled her humanist prayer was not actually a prayer and her understanding of a higher power doesn’t count.

Religious freedom is a cherished American ideal. It guarantees that everyone’s tradition, whether Christian, Jewish, Native American, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or humanist, must be treated equally. And yet, the Arizona House spurned this principle yesterday. The House discriminated against Salman based on her beliefs. And it has done so in past years too: For example, in 2013, legislators objected to then-Rep. (now state senator) Juan Mendez’s humanist invocation and, in response, offered two Christian prayers (including one asking for forgiveness for Mendez’s invocation) the next time the legislature met.

An invocation’s purpose is to solemnize the legislature’s work and set the tone for cooperative public service among the legislators. All Arizona representatives should be treated equally and have the opportunity to provide their chosen prayer before their House colleagues. Non-theists, like Salman, want to be treated the same as everyone else. Excluding them is religious discrimination, plain and simple.

Arizona's House of Representatives should respect religious freedom by welcoming diverse invocations. (photo by Visitor7)

But the actions on the House floor didn’t just send a message to Salman that her beliefs regarding religion are unwelcome in the Arizona House of Representatives. These actions sent the message to the many Arizonans who are atheists, humanists, agnostics or belong to minority faiths that they are outsiders, not welcomed by the very people elected to represent them. The House invocations, which supporters promise are a moment of unity, inevitably serve to divide legislators and constituents along religious lines.

Today, allies held a rally at the statehouse for Salman, and Americans United and our Greater Phoenix chapter showed our support. We applaud Salman for having the courage to stand before her colleagues and offer the invocation from her tradition, knowing that her religious views are in the minority.

And we applaud her for standing up for religious freedom, which guarantees freedom for all regardless of faith – Christians, Native Americans and non-believers. Rejecting Salman because she is an atheist betrays this freedom.

Americans United is fighting for people like Salman across the country, and has gone to court to represent non-theists who have been barred from giving secular invocations to open governmental meetings. Check out our Operation Inclusion project to see more about our work.