Editorial: House prayer: What would Juan Mendez do?

There are good reasons to keep government and religion in separate spheres, and the Arizona House of Representatives recently provided a clear example.

Also, they may be violating the U.S. Constitution.

It started with state Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Phoenix, who asked for and received an opportunity to give the invocation that opens House sessions. Here's what he said:

"We are here today, as every day, to represent our pluralistic society, 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. Thank you."

When he was done, many of his fellow lawmakers lined up to rhetorically slap him down. Why? His prayer wasn't prayerful enough.

There is a new House rule stating that prayers opening a session must call on God. Mendez didn't do that, so other legislators brought up a reverend who just happened to be waiting on the House floor. Some suggested it was a setup to make an example of Mendez, who has given invocations like this before. If so, it was petty and small-minded, a waste of time, and nothing any person of faith would do.

Mendez did cross a line by suggesting people of faith "seek the assistance of a higher power with hands in the air" while people like him "assist directly, with hands to the Earth." That's neither fair nor accurate. Religious groups do tremendous hands-on work all over the world and make a significant difference.

The outrage and indignation that followed Mendez's comments was unfair as well. He has every right to speak his beliefs, and his message - let's work together to accomplish something good, and I don't need a God to prompt me to make the world a better place - should be uncontroversial.

That rule about what constitutes a prayer should cause controversy, however.

House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale, sent a memo to House members that said, "Prayer, as commonly understood and in the long honored tradition of the Arizona House of Representatives, is a solemn request for guidance and help from God."

So that's an official policy - if you want to give an invocation in the Arizona House of Representatives, you've got to call on God, whether you believe in Him or not.

Here's the problem: There's the first clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

And fine, the Arizona House isn't Congress, and a rule for House members is not the same as a law, but the point remains the same. A government official is requiring religious belief in official proceedings of a public body. That's unconstitutional and wrong.

Pray all you want, to God, Allah, Vishnu or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Just don't try to make others pray with you. That's not what America is about.