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5/23/2013 12:05:00 PM
Battle over prayer at Legislature
The Mendez 'prayer'
Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask you not to bow your heads. 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.

This room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my Secular Humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.

Carl Sagan once wrote, "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.' There is, in the political process, much to bear. In this room, let us cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our state, for our Constitution and for our democracy - and let us root our policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans regardless of religious belief or nonbelief. In gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion, let us work together for a better Arizona.

-- Capitol Media Services



Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services


PHOENIX -- A Christian lawmaker lashed out Wednesday against another legislator for using the time for the daily prayer to instead talk about his secular beliefs.

Rep. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said it was wrong of Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Phoenix, to make comments on Tuesday that were not, in the traditional sense, a "prayer.' He said if Mendez did not want to offer a prayer, he should have skipped his turn in what has traditionally been a rotation among members.

To make up for that lack, Smith insisted Wednesday on offering a prayer -- actually the second for that day -- "for repentance of yesterday.' And he asked colleagues to stand and "give our due respect to the creator of the universe.'

Mendez said after Wednesday's session he did nothing wrong with his Tuesday action. And even House Speaker Andy Tobin, who referred to himself as a "prayerful person,' said Mendez was not out of line.

The dust-up comes amid a session that has become divisive in part over issues of religious freedoms. That includes legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate to give those who feel government actions are violating their personal religious freedoms an enhanced right to sue, and to exempt some vacant land held by churches from property taxes. (See related story.)

It also comes as the U.S. Supreme Court agreed earlier this week to consider whether it is proper to offer prayers at the start of public meetings. Tobin filed an amicus brief with the court on behalf of the Town of Greece, N.Y., urging the justices to uphold the practice.

Mendez purposely pointed up on Tuesday what he was about to do.

He acknowledged the daily prayers traditionally begin with a request that people bow their heads.

"I would like to ask you not to bow your heads,' he told colleagues. "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.'

It took Smith until Wednesday to react with his call for having a second prayer -- the daily one which had earlier been offered by Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, and his own.

Smith's actions drew a slap from Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, R-Cameron. She noted that many of the prayers that are offered are done so in the name of Jesus Christ.

"I want to remind you there are a lot of us here who aren't Christianized,' she said.

Yet Peshlakai said she and others have never made a fuss over those prayers. And she said it was inappropriate of Smith to criticize what Mendez did.

"You have tradition that you pledge and pray,' Smith responded later. In fact, 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,' Smith said.

"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 explained. "Well, that's not the Pledge of Allegiance and what he said yesterday was not a prayer.'

And Smith noted that Mendez, during that time, mentioned that members of the Secular Coalition of Arizona were in the gallery, explaining that was part of the reason he was offering his alternative.

Smith said those who do not believe in an Almighty are entitled to the same consideration and rights on the House floor.

"However, when there's a time set aside to pray and to pledge, if you are a nonbeliever don't ask for a time to pray,' he said.

That, however, still leaves the question of exactly what constitutes a prayer.

"I would say it's the old rule of thumb: You would know a prayer when you hear one,' Smith said. He said while there's no "checklist' of what has to be included, it is a prayer to someone, whether mentioned by name or not.

Conversely, Smith said Mendez acknowledged that what he offered was not a prayer.

Mendez, however, said his lack of mention of a higher power makes it no less a prayer.

"I seem to have offended people by not starting there,' he said, saying he did not mean to do that.

"I was asking for everybody to celebrate everything we share together and to take that forward as we're making policy,' he said. That, he said, "is the same thing that everyone else does.'

And Mendez said he did nothing wrong in using the time for "prayer' for what he said.

"I wanted to find a way to convey some message and take advantage of the opportunity that people have when we offer these prayers,' Mendez said. And he said he has the same rights as anyone else to use that brief time at the beginning of the session.

"If my lack of religion doesn't give me the same opportunities to engage in this platform, then I feel kind of disenfranchised,' Mendez said. "So I did want to stand up and offer some kind of thing that represented my view of what's going on.'

In the Supreme Court brief Tobin filed along with Senate President Andy Biggs and Mike Hubbard, speaker of the Alabama House, he argued that prayer does not conflict with First Amendment rights. And he said that oversight of religious speech "does violence to both the practice of legislative prayer and First Amendment freedoms.'

"Indeed, as the nation continues to grow legislative prayer has served to enhance individual liberty by providing a dynamic expression of the tremendous diversity of faiths that make up the greater body politic,' the brief reads.


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Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Article comment by: Mary Jane

@ Tina Vig(i?)lante The separation of Church and State was given to us as a way to keep the State out of Religion, not the other way around!

Posted: Monday, May 27, 2013
Article comment by: Tina Viglante

If you want to pray do it at home or in church. Keep church and state seperate. There's a reason the founders wrote seperation of church and state into the constitution, so we don't become like lran or Afghanistan. We must stand up to the American Taliban.

Posted: Friday, May 24, 2013
Article comment by: Carl Nye - Jerome

Three cheers for Representative Mendez, and secular humanism. Indeed, what constitutes a prayer? Representative Steve Smith has his definition and it appears that anything else is not acceptable (to him). So he raises a fuss. How narrow-minded and sad.



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