Borough assembly passes invocation policy

Those wishing to give an invocation before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly now have to be either a chaplain or a member of a religious organization with an established presence in the borough.

The assembly opens each meeting with a prayer from a member of the community, predominately Christian pastors. In recent months, several attendees at meetings have said the prayers make them uncomfortable and the assembly should either have prayers from all religious groups or do away with the invocation. In response, the assembly in June broadened the invitation to include all groups and received an invocation from a member of a central Kenai Peninsula atheist group and from a member of the Temple of Satan.

After the Temple of Satan prayer, members of the community reacted by asking the assembly to restrict the invocation to Christian prayer. Assembly members Brent Johnson and Brandii Holmdahl proposed alternate ordinances, one to change the prayer to a moment of silence and the other to eliminate the invocation from the agenda, but both were shot down before introduction at the assembly’s Aug. 23 meeting.

Assembly President Blaine Gilman and assembly member Dale Bagley proposed a formal policy that will have the borough clerk set up a database of people who have applied to give the invocation. Only members of religious organizations with an established presence or chaplains who serve fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals or other similar organizations can provide invocations.

On Tuesday, all the testimony provided to the assembly opposed the policy.

“A strict policy that focuses on who is allowed to give an invocation rather than the content of the invocation of itself is a blatant attempt at discrimination against people who do not feel welcome in any of the current religious associations with an established presence in the Kenai Peninsula Borough that regularly meet for the purpose of sharing a religious perspective,” said Iris Fontana, a Kasilof resident and the member of the Temple of Satan who gave the invocation in August.

She said she got many negative comments after giving that invocation, but many were in favor of removing the invocation entirely to allow the borough assembly “to get straight to business.” The new policy will exclude people who are not members of established groups, and people choose not to be members of groups for a variety of reasons, she said.

Assembly members Kelly Cooper and Bagley proposed an amendment that would have changed the word “prayer” in the policy to “invocation” and changed “religious associations” to any group that meets to share a religious perspective or “other interest or belief that is very important to the attendees.”

Cooper said her intent for the amendment was to broaden the policy to include all organizations doing good in the community, not just those who met for religious purposes. She referenced Brother Asaiah Bates, a community figure who lived in Homer and sometimes offered the invocation before the assembly in its meetings there.

“Anyone who’s been to Homer or on the peninsula for any length of time knows Brother Asaiah,” she said. “He was not affiliated with a brick and mortar building. It wasn’t an official religious organization. (He was) one of the kindest, most benevolent, charitable people you will ever meet. I kept him in mind as I was trying to do this.”

The assembly shot down the amendment, though, for a variety of stated reasons. Assembly member Stan Welles said he opposed it because he wanted to see the invocation stay as Christian prayer; assembly member Willy Dunne said he opposed it because he opposed the entire policy, as it restricted those allowed to give invocations to a borough-approved group.

Gilman, who said he worked on the amendment with the borough legal department, said the 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway decision in the U.S. Supreme Court — which ruled that the town of Greece in upstate New York was allowed to open meetings with prayer — showed the borough’s right to have invocations. The assembly cannot control content of the invocations offered.

The invocation does not force anyone to participate in a religion if they do not want to and can be important to those who are religious, including those who serve on the borough assembly, he said.

“I think we have a right — I think I have a right as an elected official because I am Christian, I am Catholic, all my decisions stem from my core belief, and I think I have a right to have an invocation and a prayer,” Gilman said. “I object to groups who are saying we don’t like your belief system and you can’t have a prayer in your body. When you look at this resolution, it is opened up to all religious groups … but not to political groups.”

He urged the assembly to pass it because without a policy, the assembly could have political groups asking to give an invocation “for shock purposes.”

The assembly passed the overall policy 6-3, with Cooper, Dunne and Holmdahl voting against.

Several members of the public expressed disappointment after the decision. Judith Jenkinson of Kasilof said in testimony at the end of the meeting that she wished the assembly had listened to the public’s wishes. She urged them to reconsider the moment of silence.

“You are not being very open,” she said. “I am so embarrassed to recognize you sitting there in your religious pious position.”

Meldonna Cody of Soldotna said the moment of silence would be the most eloquent solution to the conflict over the invocation, and though the assembly voted down an ordinance to transition to a moment of silence, she urged them to reconsider.

“A moment of silence lets me fill my soul with whatever my belief happens to be,” she said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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