Arizona House still disparaging nonreligious legislators, FFRF responds

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A brave freethinking Arizona state legislator has again been insulted in the House — and the Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to once more come to her defense.

On Feb. 11, state Rep. Athena Salman delivered an invocation that included a call to reflect on the complexity of the natural world:

Take a moment to reflect on the wonders of the universe. Bask in the awe and magnificence of the diversity of nature. … No matter what we may call it, we give thanks to the awe and inspiring power of nature itself.

After these buoyant words, state Rep. John Kavanagh took the floor to mock and disparage Salman’s invocation:

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. 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.

This history of divisiveness and disparagement that non-Christian invocations engender in the Arizona House is precisely why the Founders chose to keep religion and government separate, FFRF contends.

This is the fourth letter FFRF has written to this body on such disparagement of nonbelievers. In April 2017, for instance, Salman gave an invocation that invoked our shared humanity, after which the floor was given to state Rep. Mark Finchem, who complained that her words were not a “request for help from God” as required by House rules, offering a second invocation “in Jesus’ name.” In March 2016, when, after months of being barred, state Rep. Juan Mendez was allowed to rise and give a secular invocation, state Rep. Steve Montenegro called upon the Rev. Mark Mucklow to deliver a Christian prayer, prompting FFRF’s defense of Mendez. Similarly, in 2013, the day after Mendez delivered a secular invocation, not just one but two Christian prayers were delivered on the House floor.

“The House ought not lend its power and prestige to religion by enforcing praying,” Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell writes to Arizona Speaker Russell Bowers. “Our nation is founded on a godless Constitution, whose only references to religion in government are exclusionary, such as ‘no religious test shall ever be required’ for public office. The United States was the first nation to adopt a secular Constitution, investing sovereignty in “We the People,” not a divine entity. The framers did not think it necessary to pray during the four-month Constitutional Convention. We fail to see why it is necessary for the House to pray to complete its daily business.”

And the Arizona House is showing its disregard for a large and growing segment of the population, FFRF asserts. Almost one-fourth of Americans identify as nonreligious. That 8-point increase since 2007 and 15-point jump since 1990 makes the “Nones” the fastest growing identification in America. Nationally, about 35 percent of millennials are nonreligious. If the House wishes to hear Christian prayers, it must also be prepared to hear Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, and yes, even atheist invocations. The House must accept whatever form the invocation takes — or it must do away with the practice altogether.

FFRF is urging the House to take the latter course and drop prayers. It will create a more inclusive, productive environment for everyone.

“The Arizona House is clearly out of step with the times,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And the bullying of freethinking representatives exhibits behavior that is not in keeping with the decorum expected from public officials.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization that works to protect the constitutional separation of state and church. FFRF represents more than 31,000 nonreligious members nationally, including over 800 members in Arizona.

Photo via Rep. Salman's Facebook Page

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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