Arizona has a problem with public prayer.
Both houses of the Legislature open with invocations. Cities and counties across the state open their meetings with prayer, as well. Yet for whatever reason, government-sponsored prayer has a way of making the news, sometimes nationally or globally so, and when it does make the news, it’s not pretty. In the year since Rep. Kavanaugh said “God was in the gallery” to mock his colleague for her atheism, that’s only become more apparent.
That includes the antics at the State Senate earlier this week. It includes the expensive lawsuit between the City of Scottsdale and the Satanic Temple. It includes the years-long history of heckling, theatrics, and mockery that attend atheist legislators when they open the House or Senate with a non-theistic invocation rather than praying to God.
Secular invocations are very simple. During the time traditionally set aside for prayer, community members will sometimes read from philosophy, poetry, or literature to inspire the dignity and gravitas of an occasion that does not require a God.
Don’t get me wrong: The Supreme Court is abundantly clear that the First Amendment – and the Separation of Church and State it guarantees – allows government bodies to open with prayer, given certain constitutional requirements. When done without discrimination, an opening prayer is legal under the current case law. But that doesn’t mean public servants can pick favorites among the countless faiths,and lack thereof, to which their constituents subscribe.
Politicians work for all their constituents, not just those who share their faith, after all.
The Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that a government body opening with prayer must be open to all voices. The Eleventh Circuit elaborated on this precedent in Williamson v. Brevard County, in which an organization of humanists and atheists successfully challenged their County Board of Commissioners for excluding them from invocations. The case law surrounding government-sponsored prayer is clear. If someone gets to pray in a government meeting, then it needs to be offered without discriminating between faiths.
Even when done constitutionally, public prayer often tends to polarize. It places our public policy makers in the position of arbitrating whose faith can be heard and whose cannot. That brings us to this week. Several years of secular invocations have done little to soften the discrimination faced by open atheists and humanists at the State Capitol. Nonbelieving legislators have been ruled out of order, mocked, and had their colleagues follow up with unofficial prayers just to de-legitimize them. All this historical baggage adds context to the events this week at the Arizona State Senate.
Senator Juan Mendez makes no secret of his secular humanism. Along with his support of secular government, he’s been giving non-theistic invocations in both chambers for years. During the first week of this session, he requested to give the invocation on the day of Secular Coalition for Arizona’s Secular Day at the Capitol. Supporters of secular government from across the state were planning their trip to Phoenix to speak to their legislators, and he chose this time to exercise his right to open the legislative day.
Senate President Karen Fann’s office gave him the runaround for weeks. They gave him uncertain responses and, after more than a few emails and phone calls, scheduled him to speak on Secular Day. Imagine his surprise, much less the surprise of secular activists who traveled from as far as Kingman, when he was snubbed at the last minute. During the time for opening prayer, the Senate President called on Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, instead, the same former representative who ruled Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, out of order for her secular invocation three years prior. Mesnard went on to give an explicitly Christian prayer, and Fann went on to apologize for what she called a simple scheduling error.
Assuming she’s telling the truth, and Mendez was snubbed by accident, it speaks to Fann’s priorities and competence to deny secular Arizonans their voice on their long-planned Day at the Capitol.
Given the historic pattern, though, I don’t believe her.
The Secular Coalition for Arizona has a public records request pending. So if Fann complies, we should know more soon about whether this was a scheduling mistake or an intentional slap in the face of her colleague and the thousands of secular constituents he represents around the state.
Either way, the sheer controversy that surrounds public prayer and the petty theatrics it seems to attract testify to the fact that Arizona can do better. Arizona’s humanists and atheists will show up and speak up for equal representation as long as our government opens official meetings with prayer, but we could all get along a lot better if we cut out the prayer and got down to business instead.
Luke Douglas, Esq. is a member of the board of directors for the Secular Coalition for Arizona.