When is a prayer not a prayer?
When it does not mention the Almighty, according to one state legislator. And he lashed out at a colleague for doing just that.
The dust-up stems from the decision by Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Phoenix, a self-professed atheist, to use his turn Tuesday offering the traditional prayer at the beginning of the House session. He started out by urging colleagues "not to bow your heads.''
"I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state,'' Mendez said.
No one said anything publicly at the time. But by Wednesday's session, Rep. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, lashed out at Mendez. He said if Mendez did not want to offer a prayer, he should have skipped his turn in what had traditionally been a rotation among members.
And to make up for that lack, Smith insisted Wednesday on offering a prayer -- actually the second for the day -- "for repentance of yesterday,'' asking asked colleagues to stand and "give our due respect to the creator of the universe.''
The dust-up comes as the U.S. Supreme Court agreed earlier this week to weigh in on the larger question of whether it is even proper to offer prayers at the start of public meetings.
It also comes amid a session that has become divisive in part over issues of religious freedoms. That includes legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate to give those who feel government actions are violating their personal religious freedoms an enhanced right to sue, and to exempt some vacant land held by churches from property taxes. (See related story.)
Smith's actions drew a slap from Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, R-Cameron. She noted that many of the prayers that are offered are done so in the name of Jesus Christ.
"We have Native Americans out there that are not Christianized like myself,'' she said.
Yet Peshlakai said she and others have never made a fuss over those prayers. And she said it was inappropriate of Smith to criticize what Mendez did.
"You have tradition that you pledge and pray,'' Smith responded later. In fact, House rules list the order of business each day as roll call, followed by prayer and then the Pledge of Allegiance.
"A prayer wasn't offered yesterday,'' Smith said.
"It's almost as if you stood up and said ... well, instead of saying the Pledge you stood up and said, 'I love all the nations of the world' and sat down,'' he explained. "Well, that's not the Pledge of Allegiance and what he said yesterday was not a prayer.''
And Smith noted that Mendez, during that time, mentioned that members of the Secular Coalition of Arizona were in the gallery, explaining that was part of the reason he was offering his alternative.
Smith said those who do not believe in an Almighty are entitled to the same consideration and rights on the House floor.
"However, when there's a time set aside to pray and to pledge, if you are a nonbeliever don't ask for a time to pray,'' he said.
That, however, still leaves the question of exactly what constitutes a prayer.
"I would say it's the old rule of thumb: You would know a prayer when you hear one,'' Smith said. He said while there's no "checklist'' of what has to be included, it is a prayer to someone, whether mentioned by name or not.
Conversely, Smith said Mendez acknowledged that what he offered was not a prayer.
Mendez, however, said his lack of mention of a higher power makes it no less a prayer.
"I seem to have offended people by not starting there,'' he said, saying he did not mean to do that.
"I was asking for everybody to celebrate everything we share together and to take that forward as we're making policy,'' he said. That, he said, "is the same thing that everyone else does.''
And Mendez said he did nothing wrong in using the time for "prayer'' for what he said.
"I wanted to find a way to convey some message and take advantage of the opportunity that people have when we offer these prayers,'' Mendez said. And he said he has the same rights as anyone else to use that brief time at the beginning of the session.
"If my lack of religion doesn't give me the same opportunities to engage in this platform, then I feel kind of disenfranchised,'' Mendez said. "So I did want to stand up and offer some kind of thing that represented my view of what's going on.''
House Speaker Andy Tobin, who described himself as a "prayerful person,'' said he Mendez did nothing wrong.
But Tobin does have opinions on prayer: He joined with Senate President Andy Biggs and Mike Hubbard, speaker of the Alabama House, to ask the Supreme Court to uphold the right of government bodies to start meeting with public prayers.
In the brief, Tobin argued that prayer does not conflict with First Amendment rights. And he said that oversight of religious speech "does violence to both the practice of legislative prayer and First Amendment freedoms.''
"Indeed, as the nation continues to grow legislative prayer has served to enhance individual liberty by providing a dynamic expression of the tremendous diversity of faiths that make up the greater body politic,'' the brief reads.