At the Arizona Capitol
Secular AZ holds that a government meeting is not an appropriate forum for prayer. While the right to public prayer at government meetings has been upheld in 2014 by the U.S. Supreme Court, this ruling specified that prayers and invocations offered should be inclusive of all religious and philosophical views represented by the population governed.
Each chamber at the Arizona State Legislature opens their floor proceedings each day with an invocation. Since 2012, Secular AZ has supported and assisted candidates who are willing to publicly give a secular invocation at the designated time.
Procedure: Senate & House
State Senators are assigned two separate days by the Senate President’s Office in which they are responsible for the day’s prayer. The Arizona State Senate employs a Chaplain who will give invocations when state senators do not wish to do so.
The Arizona House of Representatives has a different procedure. Representatives must request a date for giving the prayer through the House Majority Leader’s Office. The House Majority Leader, who incidentally is also a Christian pastor, then approves or disapproves the request.
Montenegro & Mendez
State Representative Juan Mendez, the only proclaimed atheist in the Arizona legislature, is known for his secular invocations. With Secular AZ’s help, he gave his first invocation in 2012 and has given a secular invocation each subsequent year. On the first day of session, January 11, 2016, he sent a request to House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, requesting the date of February 8, 2016 to give the invocation in conjunction with Secular AZ’s event at the Capitol. Mr. Montenegro denied his request, stating that the date had already been assigned. Secular AZ probed further into the denied request by asking Mr. Montenegro’s office who had been assigned the date, only to find out from his office that the date had not yet been assigned.
Later in January, Mr. Montenegro issued a memo to inform that anyone offering a prayer at the designated time was required to invoke a “higher power.” This memo brought media attention due to its exclusive nature. A few weeks later, in February, Mr. Montenegro’s office sent a message to Mr. Mendez, offering him the date of March 3, 2016, stating that another member had offered to give up the date. Mr. Mendez accepted the date and prepared a secular invocation, working closely with Secular AZ Board Member Caleb Naugle and Mr. Naugle’s wife, Addison.
On March 3, 2016, Mr. Mendez gave his secular invocation, only to be immediately reprimanded by Majority Leader Steve Montenegro. Regrettably, House leadership set him up to make an embarrassing example of his failure to “reference a higher power” in adherence with their new policy. He was publicly shamed, followed by a pastor giving a Christian prayer that leadership deemed more appropriate and then subjected to a tirade of public comments from other legislators about how offensive they found his secular invocation. (Watch the reactions here.) Secular AZ strongly disagrees with the policy that invocations must reference a “higher power,” and we will continue to oppose the policy in addition to encouraging and supporting candidates who want to give non-Christian invocations.
In Arizona Cities
Several cities in Arizona also had issues arise surrounding prayer in government meetings in 2016. The highest profile case happened in the Phoenix City Council which, incidentally, had an invocation policy supported by Secular AZ. Phoenix City Council’s original policy was to allow any person or religious group to apply to give an invocation and be added to the calendar without censorship or preference. Quite a stir was raised when a Satanic Temple leader applied to give an invocation at Phoenix City Council and was added to the calendar without discrimination, per policy. Several city council members acted immediately to change the city’s inclusive policy. The compromise solution was to institute a moment of silence at the beginning of meetings for citizens to privately pray if they choose. Unfortunately, the moment of silence policy was short-lived. Within a month, the Council re-instituted public prayer, this time allowing it only to be given by city police and/or fire chaplains, which, according to our research, represent Christianity at a far higher rate than is reflected in Arizona’s general population.
Coolidge, AZ had a similar issue surrounding prayer at government meetings when they attempted in August 2015 to institute a policy allowing only Christian prayer at City Council meetings. They immediately changed their policy back to a more inclusive position following pressure from citizens, Secular AZ and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, although the current policy still excludes minority religions and nonbelievers.
Similar issues surfaced at the Chino Valley Town Council and the Scottsdale City Council in the past year.
Secular AZ continues to hold the position that prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, divisive and unconstitutional, but in light of the Supreme Court’s upholding of right to practice, we will continue to work with government assemblies to be more inclusive and diverse in their invocation offerings to include invocations of minority religions and invocations that are secular in nature. The 2016 U. S. Presidential election will ultimately determine the Supreme Court’s composition and will drive further litigation on this issue.