Arizona Representative John Kavanagh mocked another state lawmaker's secular invocation during the daily floor session on Monday by introducing God as his "guest" for the proceedings. God, Kavanagh said, was in the House gallery, "as he is everywhere."
Kavanagh's snarky remarks drew an emotional response the following day from Representative Athena Salman, an atheist legislator who gave a nonreligious speech about nature when it was her turn to deliver the opening prayer on Monday. Without invoking a deity, Salman had asked legislators to reflect on the “wonders of the universe" and the diversity of life on an "insignificant planet in an insignificant galaxy."
The incident is the latest in a long-running feud between the Legislature's cohort of the religious right and their secular-minded colleagues like Salman, a Democratic atheist from Tempe.
During a speech on the House floor on Tuesday, Salman, flanked by other Democrats, said Kavanagh denigrated her religious beliefs and violated the House rules by exhibiting "behavior unbecoming of a member."
"I rise to protest today because I want to make it clear I have never denigrated another member’s invocation," Salman said. "Yet for the third year in a row, members of this body have belittled my religious beliefs in ways that are humiliating and uncalled for."
On Monday, members of the Secular Coalition for Arizona were in the gallery for "Secular Day" at the Capitol, a rundown of activities that included meetings with lawmakers and a press conference denouncing a state license plate that funds an anti-LGBTQ Christian legal advocacy group.
Kavanagh, a conservative Republican from Fountain Hills who represents District 23, seized an opportunity to jab the secularists in the room when he rose to speak shortly after Salman's invocation.
“I rise to a point of personal privilege, introduction of guest in the gallery," Kavanagh said. "I would like to introduce my guest, God. God is in the gallery, as he is everywhere, and the same God, who, by the way, created nature, which purportedly created this tiny speck of a planet in which this tiny speck of a Legislature legislates.”
As she explained during her speech of protest on Tuesday, Salman's mother and grandmother were in the gallery at the time of Kavanagh's stunt. "I was so ashamed, I didn’t even introduce them because of the behavior that we witnessed on the floor," she said.
In an emailed statement to Phoenix New Times, Kavanagh expressed no regrets about his remarks.
“My floor statement was a friendly counterpoint to Representative Salman’s hijacking of the prayer and turning it into a secular commercial for the Secular Coalition members in the gallery," Kavanagh said. "I felt it proper to restore God to the prayer, which is the purpose of the prayer."
He added, "I find it unfortunate that Representative Salman took my friendly commentary as a rebuke, because it was not. I am also disappointed that she complained to the principle, in this case the Speaker, about my comment instead of speaking to me to work it out. Hopefully, in the future, we can talk things out, straighten out our differences, and avoid unnecessary controversy, even if it deprives the New Times of a story.”
Salman has been in this position before. In 2017, she was rebuked by the House leadership for delivering an invocation they deemed not religious enough, in which Salman asked her colleagues to "remember the humanity that resides within each and every person here."
Her partner is fellow lawmaker and atheist Juan Mendez, a state senator. Like Salman, Mendez has angered Republicans by giving secular invocations in the Legislature.
And just a few days ago, Mendez drew criticism from an influential Christian group stemming from his work with the Secular Coalition. Mendez has sponsored legislation to repeal a state-sanctioned Arizona license plate that raises money for the Alliance Defending Freedom. The nonprofit Christian legal advocacy center has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ "hate group."
In a statement on Friday, an attorney for the ADF said, "Mendez's actions are discriminatory against people of faith."
After Salman finished her speech on Tuesday, there was no visible reaction from Speaker Pro Tempore T.J. Shope except for a request that people in the gallery stop applauding. He continued with the chamber's usual business.
She characterized Kavanagh's remarks as part of a pattern that defies the House rules.
"For years, members of a more established religion in this chamber have disparaged members of non-faith," Salman said on the floor on Tuesday. "This is in clear violation of our rights."