We have an update on a story we first brought you last week on atheism in Arizona. An atheist lawmaker denied a chance to say prayer at the Capitol was invited earlier this week to say the invocation on Thursday.
Here is what Rep. Juan Mendez said:
"We are here today, as every day, to represent our pluralistic society - of which I am grateful to again be included in - to represent that beauty of our multi-cultural state that reflects our diversity of color, of heritage, of religion and lack thereof.
"Spanning across communities both urban and rural; we are the same. Yearning to better our lives. Looking to better the lives of others.
"Let us embrace those that want to help our society grow. Let us accept each other for our differences. Let us work to help those we represent flourish.
"We need not tomorrow's promise of reward, to do good deeds today. For some may seek the assistance of a higher power with hands in the air, there are those of us that are prepared to assist directly, with our hands to the earth.
"Take these words to heart as we move this great state of Arizona forward: It is our responsibility to honor the Constitution and the secular equality it brings.
"And so shall it be..."
As soon as Mendez finished, House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, the one who offered Mendez the opportunity to deliver the invocation, took issue with what he said.
Citing House rules requiring that a prayer reference God or a higher power, Montenegro called on a Baptist minister, who was ready and waiting to do just that.
"At least let one voice today say thank you, God bless you," the Rev. Mark Mucklow said in closing.
Afterwards several other Republicans took issue with what Mendez said -- or rather, didn't say.
It’s a long-honored tradition at the Arizona state Capitol. Lawmakers pray every day at the start of the session.
"The country was founded on certain Christian beliefs," Sen. Steve Smith said." We have people give Jewish prayers, Mormon prayers, Christian prayers, Catholic prayers, all kinds of prayers."
But if you don’t identify with a particular religion, you can no longer be a part of that opening prayer.
"I find myself not being able to give a prayer," Rep. Juan Mendez, a self-proclaimed atheist, said.
In 2013, all lawmakers took turns giving the prayer. When it was Mendez' turn, he didn’t want to do it.
“I actually tried to not do the prayer. I avoided it," he recalled. "They essentially made me give a prayer. So, I scrambled to even understand what it would mean for me, and it took me awhile."
After studying lots of the prayers in the House, Mendez came up with an invocation that was 1 minute, 17 seconds.
In it, he asked lawmakers not to bow their heads. He asked the room full of legislators to "cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, shared capacity for reason, shared love for the people of our state, for our Constitution and for our democracy."
Mendez closed his invocation, "In gratitude and love, in reason and compassion, let us work together for a better Arizona."
[WATCH: Mendez' invocation]
Mendez gave the invocation again in 2014, and he wanted to get on the calendar this year, the same day the Secular Coalition for Arizona would be at the Capitol.
Mendez was denied this time around because he "doesn’t invoke a higher power," part of the new rules just put into place by House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro.
But, in a sudden change of events, Mendez has just been just invited to say the invocation on Thursday!
We repeatedly reached out to Montenegro for comment, but he refused to return our calls.
"The Supreme Court is the highest law of the land, and they have given us the guidelines on how to do this and that's what we're following," the lawmaker and church pastor said in a previous interview with 3TV.
That same Supreme Court ruling to which Montenegro refers includes a caveat -- "so long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination."
"Heaven forbid we offend somebody, somewhere," Smith said.
It turns out Smith was the one who was offended. A representative at the time, he had a problem with Mendez’ invocation three years ago.
The very next day, in the middle of the state’s business, he stood up and told the body of lawmakers he was bothered by the previous day’s events and wanted them to join him in asking for forgiveness.
"Members, those who would like to join me in repentance of yesterday, I ask you to stand," he said. "And members, I ask that we give our due respect to the creator of the universe."
"It's frankly disgusting," Arizona State University Professor Lawrence Krauss, a well-known atheist, said. "How can something that is respectful be insulting?
"We are allowed to treat someone with total disrespect because they lack faith, that we would never do to someone who claimed to be religious," he continued.
According to Krauss, a world-renowned theoretical physicist and best-selling author, some people equate no beliefs with no values.
"[Some have] the idea that somehow if you question the existence of God, you're a bad person, that the only way to be moral is to believe in God," Krauss said.
[Raw video: Dr. Krauss interview]
According to a 2012 Gallup Polls, atheists are the least electable group in America. The latest poll shows that socialists are now less electable than atheists.
Krauss says atheists are seen as "more negative than no experience, financial impropriety, adultery or in this case, even being a Muslim. Somehow, atheism is associated with evil."
He says people are afraid of anything that threatens their faith and that asking questions will confront it.
"It's kind of amazing, religion has captured the market on morality," he said.
Krauss has a theory.
"Obviously, if you look at the First World, I think it's education," he explained. "As the populace becomes more educated, their willingness to believe myths decreases, and their willingness to openly ask questions increases."
From celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz to entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and philanthropists Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, there are many famous atheists. Actor Johnny Depp is slated to speak at The Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. this summer. The Golden Globe winner also is joining Krauss for An Origins Project Dialogue at Gammage Auditorium on March 12.
Despite the growth of nonbelievers, those who reject religion are not represented in government.
"If any politician for major public office says, 'You know what, I don't accept it,' then right now it's political suicide," Krauss said.
Numbers show nonbelievers account for about 23 percent of Americans, yet Mendez is the only admitted atheist in the Arizona Legislature.
"You can be good without necessarily having a god," Mendez said. "I'm here to do positive, good work."
Mendez said his constituents don’t have a problem with his lack of faith. His only challenges seem to come from his colleagues at the Capitol.
He points out that more often than not, the prayer is usually the same call to action referencing the same couple of names from the same religion.
"To where it really normalizes it and makes it sound like we all have one religion down here," Mendez said.
"We haven't been able to find a proper and nondiscriminatory way to have people participate in the prayer, and now it's going to be something that much more divides us," he said.
"If you have somebody who’s a secularist or atheist or this or that who doesn’t believe in prayer, they probably shouldn't do it," Smith said. "It's not some sarcastic monotone statement about life in general."
"I think this is political correctness run amok," he continued.
Smith doesn’t believe in the fundamental principle of the separation of church and state as laid out in the First Amendment and backed by the Supreme Court.
"Somebody will have to show me in our founding documents where there's a separation of church and state because it doesn't exist," he said,
Krauss points out that religion should have no bearing in politics. The reality, however, is that people's beliefs often influence their actions.
"Government is based on the creation of laws to ensure the health and welfare and safety of the public," he said. "Faith has nothing to do with any of that. I don’t care what people believe. I just want them to think for themselves."
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