This week the first openly Atheist member in the Arizona House, Athena Salman, was rebuked for her prayer on grounds that it did not specifically reference a “higher power”. This requirement is apparently a new rule, likely added in response to prayers given in the past. This year is Representative Salman’s first term, but in previous years her predecessor, Rep Mendez (recently elected to the state Senate) has irritated his House colleagues with his non-standard prayers — notably quoting Carl Sagan in one. In response to last year’s prayer, the Az House Majority Leader ordered that the prayer by Mendez be followed immediately by a “proper prayer” from a reverend.
The Az state House of Representatives opens each legislative session with a prayer/invocation. The rules allow each lawmaker to participate, in rotating turns, or they may choose to skip their turn. The prayer given by Representative Salman contained no slur or offensive poke in the eye for believers. But they couldn’t let it go, because this was an opportunity for conservatives to make sure she knew they do not respect her beliefs enough to simply listen quietly when it is her turn.
At first this didn’t strike me as a significant event. But the more I read and think about it, the more I wonder if it might be worthy of a legal challenge. When the Supreme Court ruled, in May 2014, to uphold prayer at government meetings, Justice Kennedy provided the following opinion:
The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce non-believers
In the Az House, the rotating turn allows each legislator the chance to offer their own inspirational message. In such a system of rotating turns, any legislator should be allowed to do so; and their heartfelt prayer/invocation should be at least respected. Creating rules that exclude prayer from non-believers, and rebuking rather than respecting them, seems to be in violation of what Justice Kennedy wrote.
That technical point aside, the bigger issue is the disrespect this action showed for Representative Salman’s beliefs. That’s a problem for our country and this state. As she explained at a rally later this week:
Opening prayers in the House should represent Arizonans of every faith's perspective. This includes the hundreds of thousands of Arizonans who, like myself, do not believe in a supernatural god, but do believe in the power of humanity to do good in the world.
Here is Representative Salman’s original prayer, as spoken on the floor of the Arizona state House:
Take a moment to look around you at the people gathered here today. We come from a variety of backgrounds and interests, but the passion that ignites us; the fire that burns within us; is similar.
We all seek to form "a more perfect union," creating change from an abiding passion to improve the lives of the humans of this city. There is wonder in that. More importantly, though, there is unity.
In a nation often eager to be polarized in its views, allow us in this moment to recognize what we have in common: A deep-seated need to help create a more just and positive world.
As we speak today, remember that commonality. Remember the humanity that resides within each and every person here, and each and every person in the city, and in all people in the nation and world as a whole.
In the words of former President of Illinois Wesleyan University Minor Meyers, Jr., “Go forth and do well, but even more, go forth and do good.”
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