Nontheist, Atheist, Humanist

Are Arizona Legislators Seeing The Light In Secular Invocations?

  Liz Hayes

Robert Peoples may’ve made history with his secular invocations offered during sessions of the Arizona state House and Senate this month.

His words might be historic not because they were the first such invocations offered in those chambers, but because they may be the first secular invocations offered that weren’t immediately criticized by Arizona legislators who didn’t find them to be satisfactorily prayerful or religious enough.

Peoples, founder of the Arizona-based Affinis Humanity Coalition, delivered his first invocation on April 1 to the Arizona State Senate. He was a guest of state Sen. Andrea Dalessandro (D-Green Valley) and the Secular Coalition for Arizona.

“In classical times, we’ve been asked to look above us for inspiration. But today, I ask that you look within and be the curators of inspiration,” he urged the Senate.

His inspiring words were apparently well-received because this week he was invited by state Rep. Isela Blanc (D-Tempe) to give an invocation before the state House.

“It is imperative for our hearts and minds to evolve with the new information. Like the Rock of Gibraltar, we must stand unwavering in our quest for intellectual nobility and humanist dialogue,” Peoples said Tuesday. “Today, I ask that you be the lighthouses of reason and let empathy be its doors. Thank you.”

So far, there’s been no reports of an outcry over Peoples’ words. It’s a nice contrast to the responses some others have received when offering secular or nontheistic invocations in the Arizona Capitol:

* In February, state Rep. Athena Salman (D-Tempe), an atheist, urged her colleagues to “reflect on the wonders of the universe” in her invocation, which ended with the words, “No matter what we may call it, we give thanks to the awe and inspiring power of nature itself.”

As soon as she finished speaking, state Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) rose and, apparently displeased with an invocation that failed to mention a god, welcomed a “guest” to the chamber: “God is in the gallery, as He is everywhere. And the same God who, by the way, created nature, which purportedly created this tiny speck of a planet in which this tiny speck of a legislature legislates.”

* In April 2017, a different Arizona House Republican took issue when Salman gave an invocation that spoke of the power of unity, justice and humanity: “In a nation often eager to be polarized in its views, allow us in this moment to recognize what we have in common: A deep-seated need to help create a more just and positive world.”

Rep. Mark Finchem (R-Oro Valley) apparently wasn’t feeling the unity: He immediately objected, claimed Salman’s invocation violated House rules because it didn’t call on what he understood to be a higher power and gave an alternate prayer that invoked Jesus.

* Back in 2013, then-freshman state Rep. Juan Mendez (D-Phoenix), also an atheist, urged his colleagues not to bow their heads in prayer, but instead, to “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 has since been elected to the state Senate and is newly engaged to Salman).

The next day, Rep. Steve Smith (R-Maricopa), ranted about Mendez’s “failure” of an invocation and said a prayer “for repentance of yesterday,” asking his fellow lawmakers to “give our due respect to the Creator of the universe.”

Let’s hope Arizona legislators are coming around to the fact that they represent people who have diverse religious and nonreligious views and that all of them can contribute meaningful dialogue and inspiration in the halls of government.

As we saw play out in Pennsylvania last month – when a nontheist woman (and AU client) was praised for her secular, inclusive invocation days before a Christian legislator was called out for her proselytizing, divisive invocation – referencing a god or sectarian beliefs in an invocation does not necessarily an inspiring message make. But invocations that call on our common values and goals? Those are the words that our elected representatives need to hear as often as we can say them.

(PHOTO: Robert Peoples, founder of the Arizona-based Affinis Humanity Coalition, offers a secular invocation to the Arizona House of Representatives. CREDIT: Screenshot from the Secular Coalition for Arizona)

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