Assembly moves to drop invocation policy

After more than a month of discussion and litigation threats, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed an amendment repealing its invocation policy on Tuesday.

However, it isn’t done yet. After the vote, assembly member Blaine Gilman filed for reconsideration of the narrow 5-4 vote. The policy will come up for consideration again on Dec. 6.

The amendment the assembly passed, proposed by assembly member Gary Knopp, deletes the entirety of the recently-passed invocation policy, which set out rules for who can give invocations before the assembly’s regular meetings.

Knopp said he proposed the amendment Tuesday deleting the policy because the assembly passed it quickly and it “has some flaws in it, to put it bluntly.” He instead suggested that if the borough wants to come up with a policy, it should do so over time and craft one that will not be discriminatory.

“Myself, personally, my preference would be to listen to the Christian invocations, and I’m not willing to give up invocations, if I have a voice in that,” he said. “But I’m also not willing to have the potential to discriminate against anybody in the public who wants to give invocations.”

His amendment was nested within another amendment, proposed by Assembly President Kelly Cooper and assembly member Dale Bagley, which would have revised the policy to open it to individuals or members of any group that meets regularly to share “a religious perspective or other interest or belief that is very important to the attendees and reasonably appears to meet the Internal Revenue Service’s tax exemption criteria” for religious organizations. Cooper and Bagley’s amendment would essentially take the policy “back to square one” and not do anything to change the original practice, so it was better to have no policy than one that did nothing, Knopp said.

The assembly passed the policy, sponsored by Bagley and Gilman, at the Oct. 11 meeting. A little more than a week later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska sent the borough a letter calling the policy unconstitutional and vaguely threatening litigation if the assembly did not drop the policy.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre vetoed it at the Oct. 26 assembly meeting, citing the potential for an expensive lawsuit over the policy. The assembly overturned the veto at the same meeting, with some members stating an intention to amend the policy.

Bagley disagreed, as did Gilman and assembly members Wayne Ogle and Stan Welles. Welles asserted that all the invocations should be specifically Christian because the country has historically been mostly Christian.

“Does it not make sense that an astute electorate would absolutely insist that the assembly seek the guidance of God, the Bible’s author, the only god that there is?” Welles said. “In that context, isn’t (this resolution) along with our current (policy) benchmarks of how far our republic has fallen since 1776?”

Assembly member Willy Dunne, who has previously said he was opposed to any form of religious qualifications for who can give invocations, said he supported Knopp’s amendment because the current policy is discriminatory.

“I find it a little odd that the borough assembly has come up with a five-point policy on how to choose someone to give an invocation, yet on other issues we seem to get by without formal policies,” he said. “… We’ve gone for close to 50 years without a policy for invocations.”

Gilman, who has defended the policy as constitutional, emphasized at the meeting that Welles’ views about the nature of the invocation were Welles’ own. He still supported the policy because it is open to all faiths, and the way the assembly is applying the policy isn’t discriminatory, as a member of an atheist group gave the invocation on Tuesday night. Although the informal procedure before worked for decades, the need for the policy came forward because “all of a sudden it started breaking down” when the member of the Satanic Temple gave an invocation.

“I say it was a political speech because it was from the Freedom From Religion Foundation deviate, the Satanic Temple,” he said. “This is a political group and is basically trying to force the assembly to stop the practice which has worked for 40 years on the assembly.”

The assembly narrowly passed Knopp’s amendment, with Bagley, Welles, Ogle and Gilman voting against, and passed the general resolution as amended along the same lines. Because the policy was dropped, the assembly decided not to take up the mayor’s proposed budget appropriation of $75,000, set aside for legal defense related to the invocation policy.

Members of the public called for invocations of various backgrounds, some nonreligious, and others called for the invocation to be transitioned to a moment of silence. Dunne said he would be looking forward to invocations from a variety of people such as poets, artists, biologists and other individuals in the community. When Gilman motioned for reconsideration, assembly member Paul Fischer, who voted for the amendment, indicated that he might change his mind on his vote.

“After tonight and after I voted, I think I voted the wrong way, because I believe … that the people have the wrong idea what an invocation is,” Fischer said.

A lawyer for the ACLU of Alaska attended the meeting and urged the assembly to drop the policy. On Wednesday, Joshua Decker, the executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, said the group was aware of the reconsideration but hoped the assembly would uphold the decision.

“We think the assembly did the right thing last night and hope that they will continue to uphold the Constitution,” he said.

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

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