Back in 2013, Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez delivered an atheist invocation to the House in which he urged his colleagues to not bow their heads, look around at the men in women in the room working to make lives better for the people in their state, and root their “policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans regardless of religious belief or non-belief.”
Pretty harmless stuff, all around.
But the day after he gave that invocation, Republican State Rep. Steve Smith lashed out against Mendez.
… He said if Mendez did not want to offer a prayer, he should have skipped his turn in what had traditionally been a rotation among members.
And to make up for that lack, Smith insisted Wednesday on offering a prayer — actually the second for the day — “for repentance of yesterday,” asking asked colleagues to stand and “give our due respect to the creator of the universe.”
Let me say that again because it’s batshit insane. Smith was so angry that a Humanist delivered an invocation, that he delivered a second Christian prayer the next day to make up for what Mendez did.
Imagine if a Muslim-American politician tried to “correct” his Christian colleague the same way… and you get a sense of just how much of a dick move that was.
But respect aside, Smith’s argument was essentially that all invocations had to be religious ones. Specifically Christian ones. It’s that mentality that Mendez was trying to push back against.
And now it’s happened again.
Yesterday, State Rep. Athena Salman delivered a godless invocation of her own. Salman, as readers may recall, is the openly atheist candidate who ran to replace Mendez when he campaigned for a seat in the State Senate. Both won their races.
Take a moment to look around you at the people gathered here today. We come from a variety of backgrounds and interests, but the passion that ignites us; the fire that burns within us; is similar.
We all seek to form “a more perfect union,” creating change from an abiding passion to improve the lives of the humans of this city. There is wonder in that. More importantly, though, there is unity.
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.
As we speak today, remember that commonality. Remember the humanity that resides within each and every person here, and each and every person in the city, and in all people in the nation and world as a whole.
In the words of former President of Illinois Wesleyan University Minor Meyers, Jr., “Go forth and do well, but even more, go forth and do good.”
That’s a beautiful speech, and, once again, there’s nothing offensive in it. If you didn’t know the source, you wouldn’t even be able to tell it was delivered by an atheist.
Yet it somehow offended a Republican. Because remembering other people’s humanity, and doing good, and creating a more just and positive world go against his party’s principles… though that’s not the excuse he gave.
[Salman’s invocation] didn’t strike Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, as a real prayer. And, apparently, it doesn’t fit with House rules.
Finchem sought, and was given permission, to offer his own invocation. He invoked Jesus.
Afterwards, House Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale, reminded the 60 lawmakers that he had issued guidance earlier this year on prayers: They should be short, accompanied by an interpretation if delivered in another language and must invoke a higher power.
If a lawmaker has no “personal investment” in a higher power, Allen said, “ask the members to focus on theirs.”
“I know it’s difficult to understand, but a prayer should be to a higher power,” said Allen, who said he is a Christian. “If you don’t want to pray, don’t sign up for the prayer.”
Even if that’s the rule, the fact that it automatically excludes atheists from delivering an invocation unless they ask other people to pray to God reeks of Christian privilege. As if the Religious Right would ever be okay with the government telling Christians to focus on the religious beliefs of Muslims during their own invocations…
Kudos to Salman’s colleagues who stood up for her on the House floor and denounced Finchem’s Christsplaining. And if you watch the end of that video, Salman stands up and says that she absolutely addressed her prayer to a Higher Power:
… goodness and humanity is a Higher Power to me.
When Salman asked House Speaker J.D. Mesnard if she violated the rules, he said that she did: “I believe you didn’t do the prayer.”
As of this writing, Salman hasn’t released a statement, but Juan Mendez has (via email):
This is now the 5th year in a row that a nontheist has given an opening prayer in the Arizona House of Representatives, and the 5th year that Republicans have been openly hostile to those voices. This is a clear example of religious oppression, and an attempt to deny nontheistic Arizonans a place at the table. The Republican leadership’s response to Rep Salman’s prayer, a beautiful invocation written by a young trans man who belongs to my Humanist community, is discrimination. Religious liberty has to be extended to everyone, even those of us who belong to the secular community.
The Secular Coalition for Arizona and Spectrum Experience (a consulting firm) plan to hold a press conference tomorrow morning outside the State Capitol, where they, along with many faith and non-faith leaders in the community, will read the rule-breaking prayer Salman delivered this week. You can get the details right here.
***Update***: Athena Salman has issued this statement:
The Arizona House of Representatives is the people’s house. Opening prayers in the House should represent Arizonans of every faith perspective. This includes the hundreds of thousands of Arizonans who, like myself, do not believe in a supernatural God but do believe in the power of humanity to do good in the world.
Everyone and every faith belief is unique in its own way. My hope then and now is that our government doesn’t punish individuals for not praying a particular way.
***Update 2***: The Secular Coalition for America’s Executive Director Larry T. Decker released this statement:
The Secular Coalition for America is deeply saddened to learn that, rather than respect the secular invocation of a fellow lawmaker, the Arizona House felt compelled to publicly invalidate and admonish Rep. Salman for her thoughtful remarks. It is important that the Arizona House represent the diversity of Arizonans, more than a quarter of whom are unaffiliated with religion. By requiring these “prayers” to recognize “a higher power”, the House rules silence secular lawmakers and prejudicially deny them a platform to speak that is available to their religious colleagues. The Secular Coalition for America implores Speaker Mesnard to worry less about defending the definition of words like “prayer” and more about fostering a spirit of inclusion that celebrates the diversity of Arizona.