Atheist Lawmaker Told He Can't Lead House Opening Prayer Unless It's to God

Rep. Juan Mendez
Arizona Democratic state Rep. Juan Mendez |

An atheist state lawmaker in Arizona has been barred from offering a prayer at the beginning of legislative sessions after being told that prayers on the house floor must be directed toward God.

According to TusconNewsNow, in the Arizona House of Representatives for many years, lawmakers or other individuals issue an invocation to kick off every session.

But when Democratic state Rep. Juan Mendez, a self-proclaimed atheist from Tempe, requested an opportunity to issue the prayer, he was informed in a memo issued by Republican House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro to all state representatives that no one will be allowed to lead the traditional prayer unless they intend on calling on a deity.

"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," Montenegro's Jan. 27 memo explained. "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. Members who wish to observe a moment of silence, recite a poem, express personal sentiments or speak rather than pray, should rise to a point of personal privilege to do so."

Montenegro's memo is not considered a policy but rather a guideline for prayers during meetings, Arizona House of Representatives press secretary Stephanie Grisham told a Phoenix ABC affiliate.

"In the absence of a written policy, the Majority Leader wanted to give members written guidance, that guidance is based on controlling U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the First Amendment," Grisham explained.

Grisham cited the 2004 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, which upheld prayer at public meetings as constitutional for the basis of Montenegro's guideline.

"Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government, to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgement of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs," Grisham said.

Although Grisham cited the 2004 Supreme Court's ruling for justification, within the 2004 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy asserts that forcing prayers to include religious dialogue or "Lord God" would be unwise.

"Because it is unlikely that prayer will be inclusive beyond dispute, it would be unwise to adopt what respondents think is the next-best option: permitting those religious words, and only those words, that are acceptable to the majority, even if they will exclude some," Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. "The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech."

Before Montenegro's guideline, Mendez had previously offered prayers to kick off legislative sessions. In 2013, Mendez opened up an afternoon session with a prayer honoring secular humanism. In 2014, Mendez issued another godless invocation.

"Everyone is accustomed to giving a prayer down here every day; they want me to be included, and I want to be included," Mendez told TusconNewsNow. "Apparently they don't like what I am saying."

Mendez added that he feels that he and his constituents have been discriminated against by Montenegro's guideline.

"Of course, I feel discriminated against; my constituents feel discriminated against," Mendez asserted. "But I don't know what that translates into."

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