Assembly takes no action on invocation

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meetings will still open with a prayer for the foreseeable future.

The assembly invites local religious groups to come and offer an invocation to open each of its regular meetings. In the past, the majority have been offered by Christian pastors. Recently, several groups have asked that the assembly either be open to all religious groups or eliminate the prayer entirely.

The debate came to a head at the Aug. 9 assembly meeting, when a member of the Temple of Satan offered the invocation. One assembly member left the room and several borough staff and members of the audience seated themselves during the invocation. In two weeks since, members of the community have spoken for and against allowing non-Christian prayer before the assembly.

In response, two assembly members filed ordinances to change or remove the invocation from the meetings. Assembly member Brent Johnson’s ordinance proposed transitioning the prayer to a moment of silence.

“The borough is made up of people with divergent religious beliefs,” Johnson wrote in his memo to the assembly. “A number of these beliefs are extremely incompatible and good members of the public can be offended by each other’s religion.”

However, the ordinance did not make it to introduction. The assembly voted it down at its Tuesday meeting, along with an ordinance proposed by assembly member Brandii Holmdahl that would have removed the invocation entirely from the assembly process.

The assembly room was fairly crowded for most of the night with people wanting to weigh in on the decision on public prayer. Most of the comments fell into three camps: eliminate the invocation; allow everyone to offer invocations; or only allow Christian prayers. A few said they would not mind the compromise of a moment of silence if the prayer could not be eliminated, like Carrie Henson of Soldotna, the head of the local secularist group Last Frontier Freethinkers, who has testified to the borough assembly multiple times on the issue.

“Even though I still feel the most appropriate way for everyone in this community to get the news of the business of the borough on equal footing is to remove the ideology and the moment of silence still represents the establishment of religion in governance, I am willing to meet you halfway,” Henson said.

Others said they feared that removing the prayer from the beginning of the assembly meetings would lead to the removal of other traditions mentioning God, such as the Pledge of Allegiance. Keith Hamilton, who has given the invocation before the assembly in the past, said he did not want to transition the invocation to a moment of silence, preferring to keep it as is.

“While this is considered a neutral response, it is actually a full no vote for public prayer,” Hamilton said in his testimony to the assembly. “This time of silence takes away prayer for all to hear, what may be the best benefit for all in attendance.”

Some commenters said they wanted to see all prayer besides Christian prayer disallowed. Others said they preferred the assembly leave invocation as part of the process but open it to all groups and backgrounds. Catherine DeLacey, a former borough clerk, said she remembered an invocation in the 1980s given by Brother Asaiah Bates in Homer that was not a Christian prayer “and the borough survived.”

“I just think this is much ado for somebody who’s trying to get their 15 minutes of fame, I just think the overwhelming majority of your constituency support an invocation, so I would pray that you would consider that,” DeLacey said.

Higher government bodies also open with prayer. The Alaska Senate opens with prayer, and the U.S. Senate has a chaplain. The separation of church and state was not to protect the state, but to shield the church’s doctrine from the influence of the state, said Peter Micciche, who said he attended the meeting as a private citizen, although he also serves as a state senator.

He said he would like to see the borough keep its invocation but set up reasonable policies for it, though he left it up to the assembly to determine what those policies would be.

“The invocation, to me, celebrates religious freedom, and that’s the freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion,” he said.

The controversy began in June when Assembly President Blaine Gilman filed an ordinance to remove prayer from the borough assembly meetings in response to several complaints. Pastors and members of the community objected then as well, and the assembly voted down the ordinance before introduction, opting instead to open the invocation to more religious groups.

Borough code provides for an invocation given by a person of the assembly president’s choosing. Gilman addressed the dissatisfaction with the Satanic invocation given at the Aug. 9 meeting in his comments at the Tuesday meeting, saying the decision was his alone to allow the invocation to go forward.

“If there’s any political blame, point your fingers toward me. I’ll accept it,” Gilman said. “…I think we need some standards so we won’t have groups attacking each other.”

The assembly was divided 4-4 on introduction, with assembly member Stan Welles absent. Assembly member Dale Bagley said he plans to consult with the borough attorney on reasonable parameters for who may offer the prayer and introduce a resolution to set those parameters by the second meeting in September.

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

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