POLITICS
05/22/2013 02:55 am ET | Updated May 22, 2013

Juan Mendez Invokes Carl Sagan While Leading Arizona House Of Representatives Pre-Session Prayer

Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez (D) turned a Tuesday afternoon prayer into something much more.

The Phoenix New Times reports that Mendez, who is an atheist, changed the course of the event held prior to the House of Representatives' afternoon session. He asked lawmakers to refrain from bowing their heads and instead to view their surroundings.

"Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads," Mendez said, according to the Phoenix New Times. "I would like to ask that you not bow your heads. 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 in our state."

Mendez also invoked the words of Dr. Carl Sagan, the late astronomer whose words on atheism have lasted for decades.

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

Mendez's move comes days after the Supreme Court decided to hear a dispute over prayers used to open public meetings. On Monday, the Associated Press detailed how an appeals court ruled an Upstate New York town violated the Constitution by opening its meetings with prayers stressing Christianity, which propelled the case to the highest level.

American Atheists, a longstanding civil liberties organization that fights for atheists' rights, lauded Mendez's decision on Tuesday as "progress!"

"We thank Mendez for his willingness to be open about his admiration for one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century—who also happens to be an atheist—and we hope this sets off a nationwide trend," the group wrote on its website.

Mendez was elected to the Arizona State House of Representatives in 2012, serving District 26 (north Tempe, northwest Mesa, and part of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community). Arizona's State Legislature is under Republican control, with 40 of the 60 representatives coming from the GOP. The State Senate sports a narrower partisan breakdown, but still has Republicans holding 17 of 30 seats.

At the national level, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) became the first member of Congress to describe her religion as "none." Former Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), who was an open atheist, lost his 2012 bid for reelection by just under 10,000 votes.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) was identified as an atheist. Sinema describes her religion as "none."

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