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Juan Mendez: Atheist Congressman Delivers First Secular Invocation in Arizona History

Yesterday, 28-year-old Juan Mendez entered the Arizona House chamber as a relatively unknown first term representative. The Arizona House of Representatives typically begins their sessions with a prayer, led by a rotating member, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. Mendez's opportunity to lead the House in prayer came yesterday, and rather than delivering a traditional prayer, he chose to embrace his secular humanism by delivering the first secular invocation in state history.

With members of the state's Secular Coalition present in the audience, Mendez delivered an invocation that quoted famed atheist Carl Sagan and urged House members to "root our policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans regardless of religious belief or nonbelief." Following the invocation, Mendez led the House in the Pledge of Allegiance.  Mendez later labeled himself as one of the 1.3 million Arizonans without religious affiliation. Mendez is not the only prominent atheist Arizonan politician. He joins the ranks of current Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, who made headlines when she was sworn into the United States House of Representatives with her hand on the Constitution rather than the Bible or Qur'an.

As the Supreme Court prepares to discuss the issue of holding prayers at government meetings, this secular invocation serves as a reminder that these pre-meeting prayers could be ruled as a breach of the separation of church and state.  The Constitution mandates that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." A previous U.S. District Court ruling determined prayers before the Indiana General Assembly to be unconstitutional, which could influence the Supreme Court's ruling on whether or not similar prayers are unconstitutional before Greece, N.Y. town school board meetings. 

Atheist advocates such as Center for Inquiry director Reba Boyd Wooden have suggested that such prayers marginalize those who do not practice religion. Others have claimed that preventing pre-meeting prayers would infringe upon their ability to practice their religion. Still others, including the parties who have filed suit against the town of Greece, N.Y., have alleged that the practice endorses Christianity. Susan Galloway and Linda Stevens, the plaintiffs, have said the majority of prayers came from Christian ministers since the practice began in 1999 and attendees were encouraged to join in or bow their heads in prayer. The case of Town of Greece v. Galloway will be ruled on during the court's next term which begins in October.

Barack Obama was the first president to acknowledge non-religious Americans in his second term inaugural speech. Last year a Pew survey found up to 20% of Americans are non-religious, making it the fastest growing religious status in America. Few politicians have been willing to "come out" as non-religious or atheist, causing many from this increasingly vocal minority to claim they are underrepresented in elected positions.  With up to 32% of 18-29 year olds identifying themselves as unaffiliated with a religion, this is an issue that is only going to gain traction in the future. 

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