State Representative Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said on Thursday that the House of Representatives should ditch a requirement that House prayers invoke a "higher power."EXPAND
State Representative Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said on Thursday that the House of Representatives should ditch a requirement that House prayers invoke a "higher power."
Ray Stern

Whose Higher Power? Atheist Legislator Draws Support After GOP Lawmakers Rebuke Her Prayer

A group of local faith and humanist leaders met at the State Capitol on Thursday to support atheist lawmaker Athena Salman, who was rebuked by Republican leaders this week over an invocation they didn't find religious enough.

"Our government has clearly gone far beyond favoring religious freedom to favoring specific religions and practices for which there are no constitutional guarantees," said Zenaido Quintana, chair of the Secular Coalition for Arizona and one of the speakers.

Salman, a first-term Democratic lawmaker from Tempe, was disparaged and discriminated against, he added.

The flap began over the daily prayer, or invocation, given each day the State House of Representatives is in session.

Salman's boyfriend and fellow lawmaker, State Senator Juan Mendez, has helped lead the charge for nonreligious invocations since 2013.

That's when the then-State Representative provoked outrage among Christian GOP members by quoting Carl Sagan during an invocation.

Last year, following the Legislature's rule change spearheaded by Christian minister Steve Montenegro, then the House Majority Leader, ordered that another godless invocation by Mendez had to be followed immediately by a proper prayer from a reverend.

Now that Montenegro's in the senate, House Leader John Allen's enforces the "higher power" guideline of his own making.

Salman asked for an opportunity to give the invocation this year, and her turn came on Tuesday.

But Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, objected to her statements and gave his own invocation in Jesus' name, which apparently was a great relief to other House Republicans. House Leader Allen then reminded members that House rules require that a prayer invoke a "higher power."

About 60 people, including speakers and supporters, protested that decision with their 9 a.m. demonstration on Thursday. It was hosted by Salman and located strategically at the Capitol's Bill of Rights memorial.

They began the "Standing for our First Freedom" event by by reading aloud the short invocation that got Salman in trouble on Tuesday.

It includes the phrase that Salman said represents her idea of a higher power: "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."

These words could have been directed to any faith, noted Anita Romanowski, membership director for the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix.

"I am deeply disappointed with the government's infantile treatment of the secular citizens of Arizona," she said. "There is a higher power — it's nature."

Members of the faith community were represented by an ecumenical Catholic organization, a member of the Havasupai tribe, and a Tempe imam, Ahmed Al Akroum, who read several verses from the Koran.

"We are all created equal in the image of God, and we all must come to respect each other's differences, beliefs and way of life," Al-Akroum said. "No one should come to ... demean or disrespect the beliefs and/or convictions of others. Our differences should come to strengthen us."

State Representative Wenona Benally, D-Window Rock, also spoke in support of Salman and against the House rules, calling on the Republican majority leadership to make a change.

"Government should not dictate to any individual that they must invoke a higher power, or worse yet, define for others what that higher power should be," Benally said.

Salman appeared overwhelmed by emotion as she stepped up to the podium and struggled to begin her speech.

"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."

Salman said she wants to see the House majority stop rebuking people for "not praying in a certain way."

"It doesn't take an atheist to see this is fundamentally wrong," she said, thanking the faith leaders who showed up to her event.

Afterward, Salman showed Phoenix New Times and other news media the official, written protest she plans on submitting to House leadership that alleges that Montenegro's prayer rules are unconstitutional and that Allen and Finchem violated House rules governing decorum and "impugning other members' motives."

Correction: This article originally misidentified Rep. Benally. Also, Salman's original speech was on Tuesday, not Wednesday. New Times regrets the errors.

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