Juan Mendez

On this date in 1985, community activist and state legislator Juan Mendez was born in Arizona. A first-generation American, he graduated from high school in Tolleson, a Phoenix suburb, and from Arizona State University with a major in political science and minor in justice studies. He then worked as political coordinator for Iron Workers Local 75 and as a program instructor for the Boys and Girls Club of the East Valley. From 2009-13, he ran the nonprofit Arizona Community Voice Mail to help connect the homeless to jobs, housing, information and hope.

Mendez burst into the national consciousness after being elected in 2012 to the Arizona House of Representatives from District 26. The 240 words of his secular invocation to open a House session caused quite a stir on May 21, 2013.

Such a “nonprayer” in a statehouse was unheard of at the time. Mendez also introduced Secular Coalition for Arizona members sitting in the gallery. One member said later she was “witnessing history.” In recognition of Mendez’s courage, FFRF bestowed on him its Emperor Has No Clothes Award, which he accepted at the 2013 national convention in Madison, Wis. After Gov. Jan Brewer signed an executive order in August 2014 to create the Governor’s Office of Faith and Community Partnerships, Mendez joined a group at the Capitol to criticize the office.

He was reelected in November 2014 and became involved in another invocation controversy in 2016. After he had signed up in January to give an invocation, House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro blocked him, saying all invocations had to be made to a “higher power” and even barring moments of silence. Mendez then used his right in February to make personal comments from the floor to offer a secular invocation after the official prayer, saying the state’s diversity includes people of different religions “and lack thereof. We need not tomorrow’s promise of reward to do good deeds today.”

Early in the next month, he offered another, after which Montenegro said that because Mendez didn’t invoke God, a Baptist minister would, calling Mark Mucklow to the podium. “At least let one voice today say ‘Thank you, God bless you,’ ” Mucklow proclaimed at the end of his prayer.

Mendez was elected to the state Senate in 2016, 2018 and 2020. He and his wife, state Rep. Athena Salman, have a daughter, Nausicaa Mendez Salman, born in January 2022. They were both reelected in November 2022.

PHOTO: by Brent Nicastro

Freedom From Religion Foundation