A top House leader slapped down a Democratic lawmaker today for using the time set aside for prayer to instead give thanks for diverse beliefs — including the belief there is no higher power.
Majority Leader Steve Montenegro declared that Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, had violated House rules that require that each day’s session begin with a “prayer.” That’s because Mendez, an atheist, used the time to talk about the “pluralistic society.”
And he made a point of saying that, from his perspective seeking divine intervention or hoping for a place in the afterlife is unnecessary.
“We need not tomorrow’s promise of reward to do good deeds today,” Mendez said. “For some may seek the assistance of a higher power with hands in their air, there are those of us that are prepared to assist directly, with our hands to the earth.”
That invocation, Montenegro complained, left the House without the required prayer. So House Speaker David Gowan, who clearly was prepared for the dust-up, called the Rev. Mark Mucklow — who conveniently was on the House floor — to fulfill the obligation.
Mucklow obliged, with a lengthy prayer asking God to direct and lead lawmakers. And to put a point on what was missing before, he asked that “at least one voice today say, ‘Thank you, God bless you and bless your families.’ “
Then other lawmakers began piling on Mendez.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said the time at the beginning of the session is set aside for prayer. He said lawmakers have a right to say anything else they want — but only after the prayer.
“I’m saddened and offended that a member of this body would knowingly disregard our call for prayer and our House rules,” he said. Finchem said there needs to be a time for prayer, “lifting this body up to the God that we speak of when we say our Pledge of Allegiance.”
“We are ‘One nation under God,’ “ Finchem said. “This republican form of government came out of the Book of Exodus,” he continued, saying “it is a matter of fact.”
Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said she believes the First Amendment is important.
“Not everybody in this room is Christian or Mormon or Jewish,” she continued. “I think it’s important we respect each other.”
But she said Mendez was wrong in using the time for the prayer for his invocation.
“It’s not time to be proselytizing even if you’re proselytizing something that’s not a religion,” Townsend said.
“I personally took offense at some of the words that were said,” she continued.
Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said he was upset about Mendez saying that while some look to a higher power that others help directly. He said Mendez was “impugning not me, but in a small way millions of people, women and men that are part of our pluralistic society that use their faith and their belief in a God … they allow to guide them in serving directly, every day and all day.”
Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said he doesn’t personally believe as does Mendez.
“But he has every right to say and voice what he said on the floor today,” he said.
Montenegro pointed out that he put out a memo earlier in the session spelling out what is acceptable as a prayer under House rules. And he said what Mendez said does not comply.
“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 wrote in that memo. He said anything else — including a moment of silence — does not meet that requirement.
Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said he doesn’t need a memo to know that what Mendez said is not a prayer.
“We know what it looks like, we know what it is,” he said.
“We also know what it looks like when someone is desecrating or mocking someone else’s beliefs,” Petersen said. And he said those who want to do that using his or her freedom of speech, they can — but not during the time reserve for prayer.
It appears that House leadership set up Mendez for the criticism.
Under House practice, the ability to give the prayer or bring in a guest to do that generally rotates among the members.
In January, Mendez had asked for his turn, only to be told that all the slots for the entire session were already reserved. Mendez said he was told that had nothing to do with the fact that he had offered an invocation three years ago where he urged fellow lawmakers “not to bow your heads” as he talked about “this extraordinary experience of being alive.”
But Mendez said Thursday that House leadership suddenly offered him the option of giving the daily prayer — knowing they already had a minister on the floor waiting to provide a second “true” prayer.