Assembly passes resolution clarifying intent on invocation policy

The debate over the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s controversial invocation policy continued Tuesday, though not much actually changed.

The assembly voted to adopt a resolution clarifying its intent with the invocation policy at its Tuesday meeting. The resolution, sponsored by assembly member Dale Bagley, states that individual members speak only for themselves when they speak in public about the controversial policy. The assembly’s intentions are “fully and only set forth within the language adopted” in the resolution containing the invocation policy, passed Oct. 11, 2016, according to the resolution passed Tuesday.

The invocation rules are now the subject of a lawsuit that has garnered attention statewide. After the assembly passed the policy, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska sent a letter to the borough threatening litigation if the assembly did not drop or amend the policy. The assembly went back and forth on the rules several times but ultimately left them in place, and the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of two residents on Dec. 14, as reported by the Clarion. The case is now before the U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

Discussion before the assembly was relatively limited. The vote Tuesday was split similar to other legislation related to the invocation policy — 6-3, with Assembly President Kelly Cooper and assembly members Willy Dunne and Brandii Holmdahl speaking against the most recent resolution.

Dunne, who has consistently voted for legislation that would broaden or remove the invocation policy passed in October, said at the meeting Tuesday that he opposed it because it seemed curious to pass a resolution only pertaining to one other resolution and that he had received many public comments opposing it.

“I’m just curious if this is a legal tactic that restates the obvious,” he said. “… it removes the history and discussion of that resolution.”

At the end of the meeting, Dunne asked for reconsideration of the resolution, which will take place at the assembly’s Feb. 14 meeting. Dunne also said he plans to submit an ordinance that would remove invocations from the beginning of the assembly’s meetings.

Dunne’s ordinance wouldn’t be the first time an assembly member has tried to remove the invocation from the agenda altogether. It wouldn’t even be the first time in the last year. In May 2016, then-Assembly President Blaine Gilman submitted an ordinance that would have removed the practice after several members of the public commented at assembly meetings that the invocations, which have historically been mostly Christian, made them uncomfortable. After much public objection, the assembly voted to kill that ordinance before introduction, opting instead to make the invocations more open to all religions.

A second ordinance to remove the invocation came forward after controversy arose when a member of the Satanic Temple delivered an invocation before the assembly in August 2016. Holmdahl, who sponsored that ordinance, said at the time she thought the invocations were a distraction from assembly business. The ordinance, along with another ordinance that would have transitioned the invocations to a moment of silence, failed to make it to introduction.

Since then, two assembly members — Gilman and former assembly member Gary Knopp — have stepped down, and Holmdahl submitted her resignation Tuesday. The assembly selected Brent Hibbert to replace Knopp at its Jan. 3 meeting. So far, three people have applied to fill Gilman’s seat — Shauna Thornton, Thomas Randell Daly and Hal Smalley. Applications for the seat are open until 5 p.m. on Feb. 2

Dunne said in an interview Tuesday that the composition of the assembly has changed and people have continuously weighed in, many in favor of eliminating the invocations. He said he hopes his ordinance to remove invocations from meetings will at least make it to introduction, which would give it a chance to be heard publicly.

“So I feel strongly to give the assembly a chance to revisit this and do away with invocations if that’s what the people want,” he said. “… There are several assembly members who are still sitting assembly members who have been staunchly opposed to removing invocations, but I would at least like to see it introduced.”

Holmdahl said at the meeting she supports the idea of the resolution that would have clarified that assembly members speak only for themselves when they speak in public about the policy, but thinks it set a bad precedent for assembly policies.

“I think it’s unnecessary and it’s already obvious when we elected and sworn in to this office,” she said.

A few members of the public commented on the proposal, some speaking to the lawsuit over the invocation policy in general or to the resolution specifically. Carrie Henson, a Soldotna resident who has commented at most assembly meetings since last May opposing invocations in general and the policy specifically, said at the meeting Tuesday that she opposed the new resolution. She urged assembly members to put aside their personal religious beliefs while serving in public office.

“When you decide to serve the public interest, you put on a different hat than your own personal belief,” she said. “You can’t wear both.”

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

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