Sen. Steve Smith challenged atheist's words.

Ross D. Franklin

PHOENIX - When is a prayer not a prayer?

When it fails to mention the Almighty, according to one state legislator, who lashed out at a fellow lawmaker for doing just that.

What's more, Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Phoenix, a self-professed atheist, specifically urged fellow lawmakers "not to bow your heads."

It was Mendez's turn to offer the traditional prayer at the beginning of the House session on Tuesday.

"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.

At Wednesday's session, Rep. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, lit into Mendez, saying if Mendez did not want to offer a prayer, he should have skipped his turn in the traditional rotation among members.

To make up for Mendez's omission, Smith insisted Wednesday on offering a second prayer to start the session, on the heels of the one led by Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, whose turn it was.

Smith's prayer was offered, "for repentance of yesterday," and asked colleagues to stand and "give our due respect to the Creator of the universe."

The flap 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, including multiple pieces of legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate expanding the right to sue by those who believe government actions are violating their personal religious freedoms. (See related story Page A4.)

Smith, whose district includes SaddleBrooke, in turn, drew a rebuke from Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, R-Cameron. She noted many of the prayers are offered 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 found it inappropriate for Smith to criticize what Mendez did.

"You have tradition that you pledge and pray," Smith responded later. 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 members of the Secular Coalition of Arizona were in the gallery, explaining that was part of the reason he was offering his alternative.

While those who do not believe in an Almighty are entitled to the same consideration and rights on the House floor, Smith said, "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.

As for exactly what make a prayer a prayer, Smith said there is no "checklist," but "you would know a prayer when you hear one," and it should be to someone, whether he is named or not.

Mendez, however, said not mentioning a higher power makes it no less a prayer.

"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.

"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" and has joined other Arizona and Alabama government leaders asking the Supreme Court to uphold the right to start public meetings with prayers, said Mendez did nothing wrong.

On StarNet: Go to to read the message by Rep. Juan Mendez.