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Arizona House Leaders Cry Foul After Atheist Delivers Opening Prayer

Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe.
(Photo courtesy of the Arizona State Legislature)
Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe.

Arizona House leaders allowed an atheist lawmaker to give the prayer to start Thursday's session and then disavowed his sentiment.

The practice of giving the daily prayer generally rotates among members of the Legislature. But when Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, asked for a turn earlier this year he was told all the slots were taken, but was assured it had nothing to do with the secular prayer he offered three years ago.

So when Mendez says House leaders offered him the chance to deliver the invocation this week he obliged, making the point that, from his perspective, seeking divine intervention or hoping for a place in the afterlife is unnecessary.

"We need not tomorrow's promise of reward to do good deeds today," he said. "For some may seek the assistance of a higher power with hands in their air, there are those of us that are prepared to assist directly, with our hands to the earth."

Majority Leader Steve Montenegro objected to those words, saying Mendez violated House rules requiring a prayer-- something he has defined in memo as "a solemn request for guidance and help from God."

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Tucson, agreed, insisting that lawmakers have a right to say anything they want after the prayer.

"I'm saddened and offended that a member of this body would knowingly disregard our call for prayer and our House rules," Finchem said.

Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, suggested that critics were out of bounds.

"We need to take a deep breath here. A real deep breath," Wheeler said. "I don't agree with Rep. Mendez or a lot of other people on a lot of different things. But he has every right to say and voice what he said on the floor today."