Legislative Prayer in Arizona

by Beth Houck, Secular AZ Legal Committee volunteer attorney

This summer, Secular AZ’s Legal Committee has been reviewing the invocation policies and practices in every county’s board of supervisors’ meetings, and in the city council meetings of the cities that are county seats. It’s a big project, requiring many public records requests and listening to hundreds of hundreds of recordings going back to the beginning of 2020. Continue reading

Children cannot be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance

State lawmakers worked hard this session to figure out ways to impose groupthink on students. Representative Fillmore from the far east valley and Pinal county introduced HB2060, requiring school children in grades 1-4 to recite the Pledge every morning. Under current law, they may if they like; under Fillmore’s bill — which thankfully died in committee — they would have been required to do so unless their parents wrote an excuse. Continue reading

Does Separation of Church and State Mean Kids Can’t Pray in Public Schools?

Myth: Thanks to separation of church and state, kids can’t pray in public schools.

Some Arizona lawmakers have made headlines claiming that we don’t need to keep guns out of schools; we need to bring more prayer in.  Once again, a legislator has introduced a bill (HB2060) to mandate a quiet reflection and moral reasoning time as a way to stick the camel’s nose under the tent.

But as long as there are algebra tests, there will be prayer in school.  What the U.S. Supreme Court banned in 1962 (Engel v. Vitale)  and 1963 was government-sponsored, compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  Voluntary prayer was never banned but, given the diversity of religions in the U.S. (1,500 to 2,000 estimated), it is a very good idea to prohibit government-sponsored or compulsory prayer.  

Prior to those rulings, Jewish and Muslim kids were required to recite Christian prayers.  Catholics were required to listen to verses from the King James version of the Bible that was written by the Anglican church that ridiculed the beliefs of the Catholics.  The non-religious were required to accept it all.  Parents rights regarding how and in what religion to bring up their children were ignored.

Legitimate Educational Goals v. Coercion and Retaliation

Today, young people can pray and read religious books in a non-disruptive way but no one can be compelled or singled out for refusing to do so.  Kids can set up religious clubs in non-instructional time but they have to be open to all, student run, and voluntary. Religion can be discussed in classes like history, art, literature and others. The Bible and other religious texts can even be read as part of a comparative religion course. As long as the approach has legitimate educational goals, public school officials will not get into trouble for teaching about religion.  This is truly the American way, not coercion and retaliation.  

It’s the Bible, after all, that says in Matthew 6:5-6, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”  Those advocating for public prayer in the school ought to pay attention to their own good books. 

The hysteria about praying in schools is just that, hysteria, or perhaps worse.  It is the shifting of blame from the state legislature’s refusal to regulate guns as the vast majority of Arizonans want to, claiming that the problem is prayer.  It’s the shifting of blame from the state legislature’s depletion of funding for our schools, to blaming our schools’ poor scholastic record on lack of prayer.  Those making these claims would not argue that the Koran should be read in class or the Torah or the Humanist Manifesto.  

In “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law,” 35 religious and civil liberties organizations give the following summary of the rights of students to express their faith in a public school:  Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive.

The Premise and Promise of Democratic Pluralism

Because the Establishment Clause does not apply to purely private speech, students enjoy the right to read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray before tests, and discuss religion with other (willing) student listeners.

In the classroom, students have the right to pray quietly, except when required to be actively engaged in school activities (e.g. students may not decide to pray just as a teacher calls on them).

In informal settings, such as the cafeteria or in the halls, students may pray either audibly or silently, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other speech in these locations.

However, the right to engage in voluntary prayer does not include, for example, the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate. (Student Religious Expression in Public Schools: United States Department of Education Guidelines) 

So first, know the facts: prayer is not excluded, it just cannot be government-sponsored or compelled. 

And second, the rules that apply to one, apply to all.  The Williamsburg Charter that was signed in 1988 by Presidents Carter and Ford, two then-living Chief Justices, and 200 other leaders states in part: 

We affirm that a right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for all. A right for a Protestant is a right for an Eastern Orthodox is a right for a Catholic is a right for a Jew is a right for a Humanist is a right for a Mormon is a right for a Muslim is a right for a Buddhist—and for the followers of any other faith within the wide bounds of the republic. 

That rights are universal and responsibilities mutual is both the premise and the promise of democratic pluralism. The First Amendment, in this sense, is the epitome of public justice and serves as the golden rule for civic life.

Rights are best guarded and responsibilities best exercised when each person and group guards for all others those rights they wish guarded for themselves. 

 

Dianne Post

Legal Director, Secular Communities for Arizona

Christians Only: Nonbelievers Need Not Apply?

The AZ Legislature has a long history of discrimination against atheist legislators, who have been repeatedly hazed, harassed, and belittled for opening legislative sessions with secular invocations.

It happened again this week, at our annual Secular Day at the Capitol. Senate President Karen Fann’s Office confirmed that Sen Juan Mendez would give the opening invocation that day, in order to represent the growing number of Arizonans who don’t believe in God. She broke her word and gave the invocation to Senator Mesnard, who gave a (conveniently ready-to-go) Christian prayer.

This action symbolically slapped Sen Mendez and AZ atheists, dozens of whom were in the gallery that day, in the face.

We’re tired of this disrespect toward nonbelieving Arizonans. We’re also tired of the controversy that surrounds public prayer and the petty theatrics it seems to attract.

Arizona can do better.

We’re calling upon Senate President Fann to stop the religious bigotry and end invocations in the Arizona Senate.

Please sign our petition to end invocations in the AZ Senate.

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Tell Senate President Karen Fann: Stop Religious Discrimination at the AZ Capitol

 

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Click here to sign this petition.

“Be the Curators of Inspiration”: Listen to Robert People‘s Secular Invocation

Follow this link to watch Robert Peoples of the Affinis Humanity Coalition deliver a moving secular invocation before the AZ State Senate as a guest of Sen. Andrea Dalessandro and Secular AZ.

https://youtu.be/xHvVnrprETQ

For a transcript, visit Patheos Friendly Atheist Blog at: https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2019/04/02/humanist-delivers-invocation-in-az-senate-be-the-curators-of-inspiration/?fbclid=IwAR07YMntqGvHQOcTk-1XdC-C8zfSEKJ7Z25YnXoTy3EVdwauaKG6ET5-2X0

“Be the Curators of Inspiration”: Listen to Robert People’s Secular Invocation

Follow this link to watch Robert Peoples of the Affinis Humanity Coalition deliver a moving secular invocation before the AZ State Senate as a guest of Sen. Andrea Dalessandro and Secular AZ.

https://youtu.be/xHvVnrprETQ

For a transcript, visit Patheos Friendly Atheist Blog at: https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2019/04/02/humanist-delivers-invocation-in-az-senate-be-the-curators-of-inspiration/?fbclid=IwAR07YMntqGvHQOcTk-1XdC-C8zfSEKJ7Z25YnXoTy3EVdwauaKG6ET5-2X0

Secular AZ Lauds Decision Limiting School Board Prayer

Secular Coalition for Arizona
www.secularaz.org
Contact: Tory Roberg, Director of Government Affairs – tory@secularaz.org – 623-570-6396

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Secular AZ lauds decision limiting school board prayer

(Thurs., July 26, 2018) Phoenix, Ariz. — In a unanimous decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday, judges ruled that California’s Chino Valley Unified School District Board was in violation of the Establishment Clause by promoting Christianity with prayers and Bible readings at meetings. Secular Coalition for Arizona calls the ruling a major victory for the separation of religion from government, and warns Arizona school boards to heed the decision.

“It’s wrong for elected officials to use their position as a way to push their religious beliefs during government proceedings,” said Zenaido Quintana, President of the Secular Coalition for Arizona. “Secular AZ is committed to ensuring this doesn’t happen at any government meetings in our state, especially at the school board level where kids might be subjected to evangelizing. The Ninth Circuit validated that our position is on the right side of the law.”

The Court specified that religious activity at school board meetings is not within the legislative prayer tradition that allows certain types of prayer to open legislative sessions. “Unlike a session of Congress or a state legislature, or a meeting of a town board, the Chino Valley Board meetings function as extensions of the educational experience of the district’s public schools,” the Court wrote in its decision. “The presence of large numbers of children and adolescents, in a setting under the control of public school authorities, is inconsonant with the legislative-prayer tradition.”

The lawsuit was brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of two parents of students in the district and twenty Doe plaintiffs (including students, parents, district employees, a former district employee, and attendees of school board meetings).

Quintana says Secular AZ will continue monitoring local government meetings to make sure the religious freedom of students is not being violated by elected officials’ evangelizing.

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The Secular Coalition for Arizona is a nonprofit advocacy organization that works to ensure a secular state government. We lobby on behalf of all individuals who believe that public policy free of religious preference is the best way to ensure freedom of conscience for Arizonans of all faiths and of none. Secular AZ is the local affiliate of the Secular Coalition for America.

Phoenix New Times: Whose Higher Power?

The Phoenix New Times published an article on Republican House members’ overreach after Rep. Athena Salman offered a secular invocation on the House Floor earlier this week. 

As Salman noted, “The Arizona House of Representatives is the people’s house,” she said, her voice cracking. “Opening prayers in the House should represent Arizonans of every faith’s perspective. This includes the hundreds of thousands of Arizonans who, like myself, who do not believe in a supernatural god, but do believe in the power of humanity to do good in the world.”

Secular AZ agrees. Read the article in the Phoenix New Times here.

Phoenix New Times

Will you support the Secular Coaliation for Arizona as we fight religious preference in our state government? Please consider becoming a member or donating today
 

Regarding official government prayer

On April 18th, 2017, State Representative Athena Salman offered a humanist invocation written by a member of her community, the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix. House leadership then ruled that, despite Salman’s assertion that her higher power is “the goodness in humanity,” Salman broke house rules by not praying to a higher power.

 

112 prayers have been recorded in the AZ House and Senate floors this year, 91% of them theistic and 80% specifically Christian or Judeo-Christian. Only six overtly secular invocations have been given this year, and three—including Rep Salman’s—prompted immediate reprovals or calls to order at the time they were delivered.

 

“The Arizona House of Representatives is the people’s house,” Salman said at a recent press conference. “Opening prayers in the House should represent Arizonans of every faith 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.”

 

We agree: Legislative prayers—if they are to be held—must be open to Arizonans of every faith’s perspective, even those who do not subscribe to a supernatural power.

 

If you live in Arizona: call your legislators and tell them that lawmakers must be treated equally regardless of faith, and this includes expressing their beliefs during the opening prayer. Encourage them to seek better understanding of their nontheist colleagues’ viewpoints, to find common ground.

Religious Preference in the House: Rep. Salman and Secular AZ in “The Nation”

Secular Coalition for Arizona was featured in The Nation magazine this week. The article — entitled An Arizona Legislator Gave an Invocation that Didn’t Mention God. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next — detailed the controversy that erupted after Representative Athena Salman offered an invocation that didn’t mention a “higher power” on the House floor this week.

Secular AZ is proud to support Rep. Salman’s constitutionally protected right to offer a secular invocation rather than a religiously based prayer. As our Board Chair, Zenaido Quintana, noted at yesterday’s Standing for Our First Freedom interfaith event, “By requiring these ‘prayers’ to recognize a ‘higher power,’ the House rules silence secular lawmakers and prejudicially deny them a platform to speak that is available to their religious colleagues.”

Read the article in The Nation here:

The Nation Secular AZ article

Will you stand with us as we support the separation of church and state in Arizona’s government? Please become a member of Secular AZ or donate today to help us continue to fight. 
 

Secular AZ to Corporation Commission: All or nothing when it comes to prayer

In a January 10, 2017 press release, the Corporation Commission announced that it will start a new practice: starting meetings with a prayer. Contrary to the statements of Chairman Tom Forese, prayer in any form does not encompass all faiths and beliefs. In fact, prayer before government meetings is a divisive act that only serves to set people apart. That was immediately evident by the comment of Forese to a reporter that if the Satanists requested to do a prayer, “Satan has no place at the commission.” This is exactly the kind of discrimination that is prohibited under the First Amendment.

Read the full text of our letter to the Corporation Commission in response to their January 10, 2017 press release in the attached file.