The new rule inside Arizona’s statehouse: no prayers allowed unless God is in the mix.
Steve Montenegro, a Republican and a part-time pastor, issued guidelines on what counts as prayer for the invocation at the start of the daily session after an atheist lawmaker quoted Carl Sagan.
“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,” he wrote. “A Member’s request to lead the prayer, or to invite a member of the clergy to lead the prayer, is an avowal that the request is for the stated purpose.”
Rep. Juan Mendez picked a more earthly being for his invocation three years ago.
“Carl Sagan once wrote, ‘For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love,’” Mendez said before the Arizona state representatives in May 2013. Mendez asked lawmakers to share “together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people in our state.”
The day after Mendez delivered his first invocation, another representative asked his colleagues to “repent” for Mendez’s omission of God. Rep. Steve Smith lambasted him for not giving a “proper prayer.”
“So members, those who would like to join me in prayer for repentance of yesterday, I ask you to stand,” Smith, a Republican, said.
Mendez told The Daily Beast he also gave an invocation the following year, but since then, every attempt to schedule one for him—even planned long in advance—seems to run up against some scheduling conflict.
Mendez says that under recent leadership, the invocations have been monopolized by Christians.
“It comes off as if we’ve really normalized a certain religion over others,” he said, describing the situation as “definitely not welcoming.”
His constituents “were hungry for this kind of language,” he said. “I started bringing a lot more people to the capitol who didn’t think they had a place at the capitol.”
“I’ve gotten more hate mail, ridiculous phone calls, rude people, stupid stuff over [a sex education bill],” he said. “No one has ever sent me negative stuff over the fact that I’m an atheist.”
A spokeswoman for legislature Republicans dismissed the change as a way to provide guidance for the long-held tradition in the absence of a written policy. “This is literally a clarifying memo,” Stephanie Grisham said.
The Daily Beast asked Grisham whether polytheists, satanists, and members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster would be able to give invocations under the new policy. “As clearly stated, all faiths are fine to say the prayer,” she said. “And despite what has been reported, the word ‘God’ does not have to be used in the prayer.”
Grisham didn’t respond to a follow-up query about whether atheists and secular humanists can still give the invocation. But Mendez said he feels like he’s appealing to a greater power in his invocations—even if he doesn’t think of it as God.
“I always try to reach out to humanity, for us to understand the shared humanity that we have,” he said.