Justice

Arizona State House Says All Invocations Must Mention A ‘Higher Power’

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Rep. Juan Jose Mendez.

An atheist lawmaker in Arizona has been barred from delivering an invocation from the state house floor after fellow elected officials mandated that sessions can only open with prayers that invoke a “higher power.”

State Rep. Juan Mendez, the Democratic state representative from Tempe, Arizona, made headlines in 2013 when he opened an afternoon session of the state House with an invocation that honored his secular humanism, a variety of atheism. As one of the few atheist elected officials in the United States, Mendez’s address — along with another in 2014was lauded by his fellow nonbelievers for lifting up secular values and name-checking Carl Sagan instead of a deity or deities.

But when Mendez put in a request to offer another such invocation in January, other members of the House reportedly told him the date was already taken. They then quickly adopted an unofficial policy barring him and any other atheist from speaking during the time traditionally set aside for explicitly religious prayer.

“Prayer, as commonly understood and in the long-honored tradition of the Arizona House of Representatives, is a solemn request for guidance and help from God,” Arizona House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro wrote in a memo about the new unofficial rule, according to the Arizona Capitol Times. The lawmaker also said that anything that doesn’t invoke a higher power would not qualify — including moments of silence.

On Monday, the date Mendez requested, a prayer was offered by a minister chosen by others other House members who made several references to God and Jesus Christ. But the secular lawmaker reportedly found a way to offer his own invocation anyway: Mendez cited a House rule allowing him to make personal comments, and then delivered a secular reflection that praised Arizona’s diverse population that includes those who claim religion and those with a “lack thereof.”

“We need not tomorrow’s promise of reward to do good deeds today,” Mendez said.

The House’s rule appears legally suspect, as it hinges on a discriminatory interpretation of Greece v. Galloway, a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case that deemed it legal to open governmental sessions with prayer. Supporters of the ban on atheist invocations say the Court stated that “prayer” requires an appeal to a higher power, but opponents argue that the same case also noted that atheist invocations were legal alongside religious ones. Moreover, the court ruled that the town of Greece was allowed to hold invocations “so long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination” — a difficult provision to square with a ban that bars any group that does not believe in a higher power.

The move thrusts the Arizona state legislature into an ongoing nationwide debate over whether or not atheists should be allowed to deliver invocations at public meetings. Towns in Alaska and Alabama already grant people who do not believe in God the right to open town hall sessions with secular orisons, but those changes only came after significant pressure from nonbeliever organizations. In fact, activist groups have forced lawmakers in at least one town to eliminate the practice altogether: Phoenix, Arizona officially ended prayer before governmental gatherings on February 4 after members of the Satanic Temple, an atheist advocacy group, signed up to deliver a “Satanic” prayer before a city council meeting. The city replaced it with a moment of silence.