It has been a pretty tumultuous week for the issue of legislative prayer, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has said it will hear a case in which Americans United challenged a New York town board’s sectarian prayer practice. But for one Arizona lawmaker, that is far from the only “controversy” surrounding pre-meeting invocations.
On Tuesday, Rep. Juan Mendez (D-Phoenix) gave the opening prayer for the Arizona House of Representatives’ daily session – only it wasn’t really a prayer. It was Mendez’s turn in the rotation, and the legislator, who identifies as an atheist, made sure to ask his colleagues not to bow their heads before delivering this message:
“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,” Mendez said, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
And that was it.
But that didn’t sit too well with Rep. Steve Smith (R-Maricopa), who ranted the next day that Mendez didn’t offer an actual prayer and that he should have skipped his turn if he didn’t want to offer a legitimate invocation.
The newspaper reported that Smith even had the audacity to offer a type of apology on Wednesday to make up for Mendez's “failure.” Smith said a prayer “for repentance of yesterday,” and asked his fellow lawmakers to “give our due respect to the Creator of the universe.”
Smith’s action not only served to undermine Mendez and attack atheism, it shows that he wrongly thinks it’s appropriate for the Arizona House to endorse religion over non-belief.
Fortunately, some of Smith's colleagues didn’t support his actions. Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, (D-Cameron), noted that many of the House’s pre-session prayers are made in the name of Jesus Christ but the non-Christians in the legislative body don’t complain.
“We have Native Americans out there that are not Christianized like myself,” she said.
House Speaker Andy Tobin (R-Paulden) also said Mendez did nothing wrong.
But Smith couldn’t accept that, and he insisted that Mendez had somehow violated House protocol.
“You have tradition that you pledge and pray,” Smith said, according to the Star. “House rules list the order of business each day as roll call, followed by prayer and then the Pledge of Allegiance. A prayer wasn’t offered yesterday.”
“It’s almost as if you stood up and said…well, instead of saying the Pledge you stood up and said, ‘I love all the nations of the world’ and sat down,” he continued. “Well, that’s not the Pledge of Allegiance, and what he said yesterday was not a prayer.”
When asked what, exactly, constitutes a prayer, Smith took a stance similar to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s view of pornography: He can’t define it, but he knows it when he sees it.
There is no “checklist,” he said, but “you would know a prayer when you hear one.”
Mendez, however, said he didn’t fail in his prayer duty.
“I was asking for everybody to celebrate everything we share together and to take that forward as we’re making policy,” he said.
Then Mendez got to the heart of the matter:
“If my lack of religion doesn't give me the same opportunities to engage in this platform, then I feel kind of disenfranchised,” he said. “So I did want to stand up and offer some kind of thing that represented my view of what’s going on.”
Considering that the Arizona House probably hears prayers every day, one secular invocation would not seem to be the end of the world. If some Arizona lawmakers feel Mendez’s views are not equal to their own in the eyes of the government, then they clearly don’t understand the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom – including the freedom not to believe.
Ultimately it is not Mendez who needs to be shown what a prayer is; it is Smith who needs to be taught what the First Amendment really means.
P.S. "The Wall of Separation" will be on hiatus on Monday. Enjoy the holiday weekend!