Cranford, NJ—American Atheists announced Friday that it has demanded an apology on behalf of all non-Christians for disparaging remarks made by Arizona state Representative Steve Smith on Wednesday. Smith’s remarks were in response to the secular invocation offered by state Representative Juan Mendez on Tuesday in the state House of Representatives.
Smith, a conservative Christian, opened Wednesday’s House session with not one, but two prayers, the second in “repentance” of the secular invocation offered the day before by Mendez. Smith invited the other lawmakers present to join him; about half of the sixty did. Smith said, “When there is at time set aside to pray …, if you are a nonbeliever, don’t ask for time to pray.”
“Opening the legislative sessions with prayer is disenfranchising to anyone who is not Christian as demonstrated by Representative Mendez’ attempt to balance this outdated practice with a secular alternative,” said President David Silverman. “But for Representative Smith to say that a fellow lawmaker’s secular choice requires ‘repentance’ is reprehensible. His statement excluding nonbelievers is one of the most un-American remarks I have ever heard from a public servant and is a perfect example of why there should not be any prayer sponsored by government. Representative Smith should be ashamed. He owes Representative Mendez an apology. He owes non-Christians an apology. He owes the American people an apology.”
“For Smith to suggest that Mendez’s expression of Humanist beliefs requires our government to pray for repentance is really awful and insulting. I’m incredibly disappointed,” said Seráh Blain, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition of Arizona.
“State Representative Steve Smith embarrassed himself … [he] demonstrated how, unfortunately, religious belief can be used as a basis for exclusion and hatred. Our Constitution guarantees equal protection and rights to all people, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs. Representative Smith owes Representative Mendez, and the citizens of our state, an apology for his inappropriate remarks,” said Lawrence Krauss, prominent theoretical physicist, atheist, and resident of Arizona.
State Representative Juan Mendez made headlines on Tuesday for using his turn in the opening prayer rotation to publicly announce that he is an atheist and to read a Carl Sagan quotation instead of a traditional prayer.
CORRECTION 5-24-13 at 5:13 PM EDT: Steve Smith is an Arizona state Representative, not a state Senator. He has previously served as an Arizona state Senator.
Text of the letter sent to Smith:
Dear State Representative Smith:
On behalf of atheists, nontheists, religious minorities, and non-Christians nationwide, we formally ask you to apologize to state Representative Mendez, to us, and to the American people for your disparaging remarks made on Wednesday, May 22 during the opening of the Arizona Senate session.
Your invitation of a second daily prayer in “repentance” for the secular invocation offered by Representative Mendez on Tuesday was insulting and degrading to him and to all nonreligious Arizonians as well as all non-Christian Arizonians.
America is a diverse country with many people who practice many religions and no religion and this is true for Arizona and your senate district. In fact, there are about 1.3 million atheists in Arizona. Additionally, in the Arizona legislature, there are members who are not Christian and Christians who do not practice Christianity the same way you do. To recognize these differences does not denigrate America but celebrates its diversity.
There is no requirement to be a Christian in order to be a patriot. Your statement that in order to love this country one must be a Christian is unpatriotic, deeply troubling, and counter to the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Again, we ask that you apologize to Representative Mendez, to your constituents, to the people of Arizona, and most especially, to all non-Christians—not for being a Christian nor for wanting to pray, but for using your position as an elected official to denounce another person’s life view as wrong and in need of correction.
David Silverman, President
Amanda Knief, Managing Director
Dave Muscato, Public Relations Director
Nick Fish, Development Director
Todd Jones, Director of Operations
Ken Loukinen, Director of Regional Operations
Greg Lammers, National Affiliates Director
Don Lacey, Arizona State Director
Dennis Horvitz, Atheist Viewpoint Co-Host
Serah Blain, Executive Director, Secular Coalition of Arizona