Assembly denies ordinance to drop invocation, lawsuit, controversy go on

After reams of public comments, dozens of emails and a legal challenge still wending its way through the state court system, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly soundly defeated an ordinance that would have eliminated its invocation procedure.

The ordinance, sponsored by assembly member Willy Dunne of Homer, would have repealed the section of code allowing for an invocation before assembly meetings. The invocation is a sore spot in the borough, after a year of debate, multiple ordinances and resolutions and an ongoing lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the assembly’s policy.

Under the current policy, only members of religious associations with an established presence in the borough or chaplains serving fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals or other similar organizations can give invocations before the assembly meetings. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska filed a lawsuit in December 2016 challenging specifically the requirements of the policy. Dunne has consistently opposed the policy, saying it is discriminatory, and to that end introduced the ordinance to do away with the invocation entirely.

“We cannot decide that a religious belief that a U.S. citizen has is legitimate or not,” he said at the assembly’s Tuesday meeting.

Public comment stretched on for nearly two hours at the meeting, with commenters split among those supporting the ordinance, those wishing to see the invocation process go back to the procedure as it was done before the policy passed in October and those who supported replacing the invocation with a moment of silence. The public comment process was muddied by a call-to-action from the Alaska Republican Party in District 29 and the Alaska Family Council, asking supporters to send emails to the assembly supporting the prayer. Many of the public comments submitted to the assembly are one sentence or less, saying the person simply supported the prayer, and did not provide any information about where the person was from or why.

Dunne said this was concerning and he wanted a policy in the future allowing assembly members to see where a commenter was from.

“I’m hoping to have some discussions on how we can make some modifications to our comment system for the email to require at least an address and see if they’re borough residents,” he said. “That was a little troubling, to not know where all these emails were coming from, because there were quite a few.”

Assembly member Jill Schaefer attempted to amend Dunne’s ordinance to convert the invocation to a moment of silence. The moment of silence would not do away with the invocation entirely and would provide a compromise, she said.

“I’m not doing away with it,” she said. “God is still here — he’s inside every one of us. I don’t think it’s bad for us to look inside us and say our own invocation. If there’s people in the audience or assembly members that don’t agree, they can ask for guidance on their decisions or go over their grocery lists or whatever is right for them.”

Though Dunne said he supported the amendment, the assembly didn’t go for it. The amendment failed 6-3, with Dunne, Schaefer and Assembly President Kelly Cooper supporting it.

None of the public commenters spoke in favor of the current policy, but many spoke in favor of the first-come, first-serve informal policy the assembly had before the policy was instituted. Schaefer asked Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship if it was possible to go back to that process, but Blankenship said it wouldn’t be possible to simply drop the policy and go back to a process without a policy. Borough Attorney Colette Thompson said the assembly could adopt a policy that looked more like its informal first-come, first-serve policy, however.

Assembly member Wayne Ogle said he didn’t want to do away with an invocation entirely, but wouldn’t be opposed to amending the policy to make it more inclusive. Cooper said in her comments she hoped the assembly could reach a compromise in the future.

“We have legislated to exclude one group … and inadvertently excluded many,” she said.

The assembly voted down the ordinance 7-2, with Dunne and Cooper supporting it.

Dunne said he intended to introduce a resolution amending the invocation policy at the next meeting. For the benefit of the three new assembly members and to hash out proper language, Cooper scheduled a work session on the invocation policy for April 4, before the assembly’s regular meeting.

The discussion Tuesday was far from the first time the ideas of eliminating the invocation or changing it to a moment of silence were brought up. The controversy began almost a year ago, when then-Assembly President Blaine Gilman sponsored an ordinance to remove the invocation, which failed before introduction. Sparks flew when a member of the Satanic Temple offered an invocation in August, and three different ordinances were offered at the next meeting — one to eliminate the invocation, one to convert it to a moment of silence and another to set guidelines for who can give it.

The ordinances to convert it to a moment of silence or eliminate it both failed before introduction, and after amendments and revision, the policy was adopted in October 2016.

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

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