Arizona House non-prayer sparks Christian re-do

FILE - This March 30, 2011 file photo shows Arizona state Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, left, and Rep. Russ Jones, R-Yuma. Smith, a conservative Christian, said Wednesday, May 22, 2013, that the prayer offered by Democratic Rep. Juan Mendez (not shown), an atheist, at the beginning of the previous day's floor session wasn't a prayer at all. So he asked other members to join him in a second daily prayer in "repentance." (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — An atheist lawmaker's decision to give the daily prayer at the Arizona House of Representatives triggered a do-over from a Christian lawmaker who said the previous day's prayer didn't pass muster.

Republican Rep. Steve Smith on Wednesday said the prayer offered by Democratic Rep. Juan Mendez of Tempe at the beginning of the previous day's floor session wasn't a prayer at all. So he asked other members to join him in a second daily prayer in "repentance," and about half the 60-member body did so. Both the Arizona House and Senate begin their sessions with a prayer and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

"When there's a time set aside to pray and to pledge, if you are a non-believer, don't ask for time to pray," said Smith, of Maricopa. "If you don't love this nation and want to pledge to it, don't say I want to lead this body in the pledge, and stand up there and say, 'you know what, instead of pledging, I love England' and (sit) down.

"That's not a pledge, and that wasn't a prayer, it's that simple," Smith said.

Mendez said he was just looking for a way to convey his own feelings like other members do when they take the rotation giving the daily prayer.

"I wanted to find a way to where I could convey some message and take advantage of the opportunity that people have when they offer these prayers," he said. "If my lack of religion doesn't give me the same opportunity to engage in this platform then I feel kind of disenfranchised. So I did want to stand up and offer some kind of thing that represented my view on what's going on."

Wednesday's dust-up over religion comes just days after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether an upstate New York town is violating constitutional prohibitions on government sanction of religion by offering prayers to open public meetings. The justices will review an appeals court ruling that held that the upstate New York town of Greece, a Rochester suburb, violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity.

Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin and Senate President Andy Biggs filed a legal brief agreeing with the town's position.

On Wednesday, Tobin said he had no problem with Mendez's prayer.

"From my perspective I didn't see an issue with Mr. Mendez yesterday," said Tobin, R-Paulden. "I can appreciate what Mr. Smith was saying, but I think all members are responsible for their own prayerful lives and I think the demonstration that we take moments for prayer we all do collectively and in our own hearts."

Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, who represents a northern Arizona district on the Navajo reservation, did take offense. She said Smith's criticism of another member's faith, or lack of it, was wrong.

"I want to remind the House and my colleagues and everybody here that several of us here are not Christianized. I'm a traditional Navajo, so I stand here every day and participate in prayers," even without personally embracing them, said Peshlakai, D-Cameron. "This is the United States, this is America, and we all represent different people ... and you need to respect that. Your God is no more powerful than my God. We all come from the same creator."

Mendez gave the invocation Tuesday while members of the Secular Coalition for Arizona were in the visitors' gallery. He began his remarks by asking fellow lawmakers not to bow their heads but to instead look around at the other men and women in the room, "sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state."


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