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Lawmaker’s invocation reignites dispute over prayer in House

PHOENIX (AP) — An ongoing fight in the Arizona House over what constitutes a real prayer has heated up again.

The latest skirmish came last week after Democratic Rep. Athena Salman of Tempe delivered the chamber’s daily invocation at the start of the session.

Salman said a humanist prayer and didn’t ask members to pray to God or any other deity, a move that broke an informal House rule and led to a protest from Republicans on the House floor.

GOP Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley was then allowed to offer a Christian prayer.

The dual messages, delivered Tuesday, were the latest in a series of prayer conflicts in the House.

Last year, then-Rep. Juan Mendez gave an invocation similar to Salman’s, setting off a more vocal protest from GOP members. Republican leaders quickly called up a pastor who was in the chamber to give a Christian prayer. Mendez did the same in 2013, leading to similar results.

Mendez is now a senator and gave a nonreligious invocation last month that drew no complaints in the upper chamber.

Sen. Warren Peterson, who was a House member during Mendez’s previous invocations, objected loudly last year. This year, he sat in silence.

In an interview Friday, he said members were deferring to Republican Senate leaders in letting Mendez’s invocation go.

“I certainly haven’t changed my position — we don’t pledge during the prayer, we don’t pray during the pledge,” Peterson said. “Sometimes, you just let it go. I think the temperature’s a lot hotter in the House.”

The House order-of-business rules show the daily session starting with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer. The Senate follows a similar routine, although the prayer and pledge aren’t in the rulebook.

House Majority Leader John Allen issued an informal directive this year defining what constitutes a prayer. It should be “short, focused on a higher power, and serve no political platform.”

The Republican said Salman’s prayer didn’t pass muster.

“She didn’t pray. She told us she didn’t pray,” Allen said. “Prayer has a definition. Even if she probably would have said, ‘Would you pray with me,’ or ‘I personally don’t have a higher power, but if you do would you turn this into your prayer’ or something like that,” it would have been fine.

Salman, who like Mendez is an atheist, is protesting mightily. She said a rule specifying what constitutes a prayer is unconstitutional.

“We’re talking about different faith perspectives, and it’s not the government’s job to define which faith perspectives are welcome in a prayer and how that should look,” she said in an interview.

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