Assembly resolution: Members only speak for themselves

A resolution planned for hearing at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly would clarify that each assembly member’s opinions about the assembly’s controversial invocation policy are his or her own.

The resolution, submitted by assembly member Dale Bagley, clarifies that any opinions given by members of the assembly do not represent the intention of the assembly as a whole.

“…no individual member of the assembly has been authorized to speak independently on behalf of the borough concerning the intent o the assembly in the consideration or adoption of any resolution or ordinance pertaining to hearing invocations,” the resolution states in one of its clauses.

On Oct. 11, 2016, the assembly adopted a policy setting rules about who can give the invocation traditionally delivered at the beginning of the assembly’s meetings. Under the policy, only someone from a religious group with an established presence in the Kenai Peninsula Borough or a chaplain serving fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals or other similar organizations can deliver the invocation. The policy is now the subject of a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Anchorage, in which the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska sued the borough on behalf of two Kenai Peninsula residents, calling the policy discriminatory.

The assembly has been debating issues related to the invocation since May, when then-Assembly President Blaine Gilman submitted an ordinance that would have eliminated invocations from the assembly’s agenda. He withdrew his support before introduction, but several other assembly members chose to pick it up and try for introduction. Ultimately, after many public comments for and against, the assembly killed the ordinance before introduction, opting instead to open up the invocation to any person wanting to participate.

Controversy erupted after a member of the Satanic Temple delivered an invocation in August, and in reaction, the assembly considered and passed a resolution at the Oct. 11 meeting containing the current invocation policy. Less than a week later, the ACLU sent a letter to the borough warning the assembly to either modify its policy or drop it on grounds of religious discrimination. Borough Mayor Mike Navarre vetoed the policy, but the assembly overturned the veto; an amendment deleting the policy passed on Nov. 22, but was reconsidered and did not pass a second time, returning the assembly to its Oct. 11 policy.

On Dec. 14, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Alaska in Anchorage against the borough, asking the court to deem the policy unconstitutional by both the U.S. Constitution and the Alaska Constitution. The attorney defending the borough, Kevin Clarkson of Anchorage, requested and was granted a motion to move the case to U.S. District Court on Jan. 9, as previously reported by the Clarion.

Throughout the discussion, assembly members have voiced individual opinions about how the invocations should be conducted. Gilman has said during the discussions that he thinks the policy is constitutional and that he thinks assembly members have a right as elected officials to hear prayer if they want to. Assembly member Stan Welles has said repeatedly in assembly discussions as well as in letters to the editor published in the Clarion that he thinks only Christian prayer should be allowed before the assembly. Assembly members Willy Dunne, Kelly Cooper and Brandii Holmdahl, who have consistently voted for efforts to amend or eliminate the invocation policy since it passed, have all said they think the policy is discriminatory during assembly meetings and interviews.

The assembly is scheduled to consider the resolution at its Jan. 17 meeting. If the assembly adopts the resolution, it will clarify that the assembly’s rationale for the invocation policy is “only set forth” within the language of the resolution containing the invocation policy.

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

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