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AZ lawmaker opens session with atheist 'prayer'

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Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez opened up the daily session with a quote by Carl Sagan. (Source: Juan Mendez/Facebook) Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez opened up the daily session with a quote by Carl Sagan. (Source: Juan Mendez/Facebook)

(RNN) - An atheist state representative from Arizona began Monday's session with what has been described as an atheist "prayer" at a time when the Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of religious prayers at official political meetings.

According to the Phoenix New Times, State Rep. Juan Mendez, of Tempe, opened the session by asking people not to bow their heads as they normally do, but instead look around at their counterparts. He proceeded to talk about his "secular humanist tradition" and quoted popular science writer and atheist, Carl Sagan.

"This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration," Mendez said. "But this is also a room where, as my secular humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love."

Mendez continued, "Carl Sagan once wrote, 'For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.'"

The atheist "prayer" was widely commended by atheists who saw Mendez's opening statements as a form of sticking up for atheist beliefs.

"Thank you Rep. Juan Mendez for representing nonbelievers and secular humanist values!" tweeted Brianne Bilyeu, who blogs about atheism and science.

On her blog, Bilyeu continued: "Thank you for the god-free invocation, for being a role-model for other politicians who might wish to be more open about their lack of religion but who feel unable to do so in our current religulous political climate, and for upholding the constitution of the United States."

The "religulous" was a reference to comedian Bill Maher's 2008 documentary about his view that religious belief s a mental disease.

The Secular Coalition for Arizona, which was in attendance, commended Mendez on its Facebook page.

"We applaud the courage and character of Representative Juan Mendez for publicly standing in solidarity with Arizona's secular community," the statement read.

Two days later, however, Republican Rep. Steve Smith said Mendez's statements were not prayer at all and asked other members to join him in a prayer of "repentance."

Mendez's statement during the opening of an official political meeting comes at a time when various cities and states across the country, including Greenville, NC and Rowlett, TX, are increasingly grappling with the issue of opening these events with religious prayers, which are almost exclusively Christian.

The issue won the attention of the Supreme Court, which agreed Monday to hear a case regarding the constitutionality of opening city council meetings with prayers in Greece, NY.

In that case, two residents of the Rochester, NY suburb who are not Christian said they felt marginalized by the Christian prayers conducted at the meetings.

"A town council meeting isn't a church service, and it shouldn't seem like one," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, a religious watchdog group representing the plaintiffs.

Lynn added: "Government can't serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion."

Rev. Vince DiPaola, pastor at Lakeshore Community Church in Greece, NY, said people against prayer in city council meetings are trying to shut religion down.

"It‘s just that in our culture, a minority of people seem to have the ultimate goal of telling people that you have to keep your faith locked away between your ears," DiPaola said, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "They want you to shut up and intimidate you."

The case is slated to begin in October and could have nationwide ramifications for how political meetings open.

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