Arizona Capitol

Arizona Lawmaker Declares That God Must Be in Legislative Prayer

Arizona House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro insists that all prayers that begin the day at the Legislature must include a reference to God.

Daily prayers at the Arizona House of Representative must include a "solemn request for guidance and help from God." — Majority Leader Steve Montenegro

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In an apparent effort to stop blasphemies, Montenegro issued a proclamation to House membership that a prayer, which is the second order of business each day when the Legislature is in session, must include a "solemn request for guidance and help from God."

Montenegro, a Republican from Litchfield Park, may have created the rule January 27 out of annoyance that Democrat Juan Mendez (D-Tempe) had requested to deliver an invocation. Three years ago, Mendez angered religious lawmakers when he gave an atheist speech instead of a prayer that quoted Carl Sagan and asked the assembly not to bow to their heads. Slots were already full, supposedly, so Mendez made a speech after a prayer by a minister who mentioned God and Jesus Christ.

Or maybe the devil made Montenegro do it:

His memo came on the same day as a news release widely shared on social media about plans by the Satanic Temple to deliver a prayer before the Phoenix City Council on February 17. The news also got the attention of Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who began tweeting furiously about those plans and generating news media attention. The Council later voted to end prayers before their sessions, replacing them with a moment of silence — which was the Temple's goal all along.

House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham tells New Times that, "it was done before Mendez or even the city of Phoenix stuff. We've been updating many policies over here; this was one of them." But she declined an invitation by New Times to provide any evidence the "no god, no prayer" plan had been cooked up before January 27.

If any state representative wants to lead the prayer or invite a "member of the clergy" to lead the prayer, Montenegro wrote in his memo, they would be avowing that the request "is for the stated purpose" — which is to include that reference to God. If members want to "observe a moment of silence, recite a poem, express personal sentiments, or speak rather than pray," they can do it on their own, he wrote, during time normally reserved for them to speak to the House.

He added a few other conditions, too:

* No particular faith will be excluded or favored in considering requests to lead the prayer or to invite clergy for that purpose.

* The privilege of leading the prayer must not be exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.

* Prayer should be solemn, respectful in tone, non-coercive, and reflect upon shared ideals and common ends.

* Members must observe the rules of decorum regardless of whether they participate in the prayer.

Montenegro declined to comment about the new rules.

Grisham says Montenegro simply wanted to give written guidance to the House about prayers. And "that guidance is based on controlling U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the First Amendment."

For clarification, she included a passage from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014):

"Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion."

Montenegro's plan takes that idea a step further, though requiring "God."

Even with just a "higher power," though, Montenegro effectively has shut out atheist House members like Mendez. 

"I have no higher power I can call on," Mendez tells New Times. "I feel discriminated against . . . I feel like I have no place in this."

Mendez says he's got lawyers checking into the situation now to determine any legal options. The First Amendment case referenced by Grisham said atheists should be included in some way: "We're going to see if [Montenegro] has crossed the line."

Mendez, serving his second term, has given two invocations before the House since election to office in 2012. Somehow, the House had scheduling problems with a third invocation he planned to deliver last year. So he asked early this year to deliver the invocation again. He was told all spots were taken, he says.

UPDATE: Scott Prior, a Democrat seeking a Senate seat in Arizona’s Legislative District 16, announced that he is "going public about his identity as a nontheist" and secular humanist following news about Montenegro's decision.

"It is infuriating that our community is not allowed to be represented in the opening invocation in the State House of Representatives," Prior wrote in a statement sent to
New Times. "There is such a terrible stigma about nontheists right now. I want to work on changing that."