One of the big stories of the 2017 session of the 53rd Legislature was #PrayerGate. On April 18, 2017, Rep. Athena Salman, who is an atheist, read a secular meditation on the Floor of the Arizona House. This is against the rules. According to the Majority Party (who makes the rules), the daily prayer on the Floor of the House must include seeking guidance from a higher power.
After Salman read her inspirational statement, Rep. Mark Finchem jumped out of his seat to protest her “prayer” as “inappropriate” because it didn’t mention God or Jesus. Finchem was allowed to offer a replacement prayer with God in it. A debate about “appropriate” prayer ensued, with atheists, Native Americans and others defending traditions that have been deemed “inappropriate” by the Republicans who control the Legislature. This is not the first time that Godless prayer in the Arizona Legislature has made international news.
A few days after #PrayerGate, the Secular Coalition of Arizona held a press conference in support of religious freedom– even for the nonreligious. I was glad to stand with Salman, the Native Americans, the Secular Coalition, other Unitarian Universalists, and those who practice Christian or non-Christian religions or no religion.
At the press conference we jointly read the secular meditation that Athena read on the floor of the House.
I stand with the Secular Coalition on this issue because I believe in the separation of church and state and because I am a Unitarian Universalist. We’re the “It’s Complicated” religion because we accept refugees and outcasts from many other religions, and we accept nonbelievers. We are guided by our seven principles which include honoring the inherent self-worth of others, the interconnectedness of life, democracy and fairness, the search for truth (even if it means believing in science!), and more.
I was raised a Protestant, but I began studying Zen Buddhism in high school. In college, I took up yoga and later Tai Chi, which led me to Taoism. Would a verse from the Tao te Ching be acceptable in the Arizona House? Would the Tao pass muster as a “higher power”? God, the Tao, the Holy Ghost, the Buddha Spirit– I see all of these as different terms for the same concepts. The basic beliefs of kindness to others and interconnectedness of life cross many belief systems. I became a UU when Jim Hannley and I got married in 2011. Where else would an atheist and a Taoist get married but the UU church.
Earlier this week, I was honored to be chosen as a “Secular Star” by the Arizona Secular Coalition. This year, I proposed HB2401 which would require medical providers to reveal the services they will not provide due to their religious beliefs. This is a major issue for women, particularly pregnant women. If you’re in a pregnancy-related emergency, you don’t want to end up in a hospital that will restrict your access to legal services because the hospital’s religious underpinnings. I also proposed HB2336, the death with dignity bill, which would allow patients to choose to die. With both of these bills, the religious beliefs of other people or corporations are set aside, and patients are given personal choice. (Medical decisions should be made by patients in consultation with their care team and families; the government and other people’s religious beliefs shouldn’t be involved.)
Should the Arizona Legislature start each day with a prayer? My personal opinion is if we start the day with a prayer, others who have different religious traditions– or no religious traditions– should be able to read an inspirational message or poem of that is meaningful to them (regardless of whether or not it invokes a higher power.)