Assembly declines to change invocation policy

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted not to change its invocation policy during its Tuesday night meeting.

The policy, which the assembly passed in October, is the subject of a recently-filed lawsuit against the borough. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska claims in the lawsuit that the rules are discriminatory because they require anyone who is giving the invocation to be a member of a religious group with an established presence on the Kenai Peninsula or a chaplain serving fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals or other similar organizations. This blocks people who are members of organizations not established on the Kenai Peninsula or who are not members of organizations from delivering the invocation, which is a violation of their civil rights, the ACLU claims.

After meeting for nearly an hour in executive session to discuss the lawsuit during Tuesday afternoon, the assembly took up a proposed amendment from Assembly President Kelly Cooper to change the regulations. The amendment would have included a clause to allow individuals or members of groups that meet to share an “interest or belief that is very important to the attendees and reasonably appears to meet the Internal Revenue Service’s tax exemption criteria” to give an invocation as well. It also would have stipulated that someone who is part of an organization established outside the Kenai Peninsula Borough but who attends regularly could also give the invocation.

Cooper, who has tried several times to make similar changes to the policy, said at the meeting that the goal of the amendment was to make the process and open to all residents of the borough.

“The invocation is an invocation, it’s not a prayer,” she said. “It can be a prayer, but if that invocation is important, this is our compromise, where we allow every member of our borough to give an invocation. So I would ask that you think of all the time that we’ve spent (on this) and it’s not about whether this is defensible or not. This is about representing our citizens and I would ask that you compromise and support me on this resolution.”

Assembly member Blaine Gilman, one of the original sponsors on the invocation rules passed in October, spoke against the amendment, saying it was important to protect the freedom of religion and the religious nature of the invocation.

“I’m afraid that what we do here, if we open this up to any individuals, you’re basically secularizing the prayer before the meeting, and any individual can come forward who has any sort of belief, whether it’s based on spiritual content or not,” he said. “An extreme example would be a neo-Nazi coming forward and expressing their views about white supremacy. That would be allowed under how you’re amending this.”

Assembly member Stan Welles, who has said several times throughout the discussion that he supports Christian-only prayer before the assembly, said he concurred with Gilman and thinks the amendment would only make things worse.

“I think (the amendment) simply aggravates the situation and gets us into more trouble than we’ve already experienced,” he said.

The other assembly members declined to weigh in, and the amendment failed 6-3, with members Cooper, Willy Dunne and Brandii Holmdahl voting in favor.

Members of the public also weighed in, as they have throughout the nearly eight-month discussion on the assembly’s invocation process. Small waves appeared in the spring when several individuals said they felt uncomfortable with the tradition, which has been part of the assembly meetings since the inception of the borough, but much larger controversy arose when a member of the Satanic Temple offered an invocation before the assembly in August. The assembly up until October had used an informal first-come, first-serve invocation process, but the discussion of a need for formal rules arose and resulted in the current policy.

The assembly also passed a transfer of $50,000 from Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre’s office to the legal department to help defend the borough against the ACLU’s lawsuit.

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

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