Assembly to consider eliminating invocation, again

For the third time in a year, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will consider an ordinance to eliminate the invocation before its meetings.

An ordinance scheduled for introduction on the agenda for the assembly’s Tuesday meeting would remove the time during the meetings set aside for invocations. The sponsor, assembly member Willy Dunne of Fritz Creek, wrote in his memo that the invocations were meant to serve the spiritual needs of assembly members but have failed to do so recently.

“Many residents of the borough have requested that invocations at assembly meetings be eliminated,” the memo states. “Ending the practice of invocations will save the borough taxpayers money and reduce divisiveness in our community .It is expected that assembly members can find ways to have their spiritual needs met outside of public meetings.”

The ordinance follows a line of discussion at the assembly since last May, when then-assembly president Blaine Gilman submitted an ordinance to remove the invocation because several members of the public had objected to it. The assembly eventually voted to drop the ordinance before introduction, but after a member of the Satanic Temple offered an invocation in August and sparked public controversy, assembly member Brandii Holmdahl tried to introduce another ordinance to remove the prayer that was also killed before introduction

In October, the assembly adopted a policy requiring anyone wishing to give the invocation to be a member of a group with an established presence in the borough that meets regularly for religious purposes or is a chaplain serving fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals or other similar organizations. The policy is now the subject of a lawsuit initially filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in December 2016.

Dunne has been a vocal critic of the invocation policy, calling it discriminatory and consistently voting to weaken or remove it. After the assembly passed a resolution at the Jan. 17 meeting stating that members speak only for themselves when talking about the invocation policy in public, and the assembly’s intent is “fully and only set forth within the language adopted” within the resolution containing the policy, Dunne filed for reconsideration.

He said in an interview that one of the major reasons he wanted to introduce the ordinance was because there has been no formal public hearing so far on the invocation issue. All the ordinances to eliminate it or transition it to a moment of silence have been struck down before introduction, and the policy and its subsequent amendments have been resolutions, which do not provide for a public hearing. Not having a public hearing cuts short the notice for public comments and especially cuts out the residents the outlying areas like Homer and Seward, who have to let the borough know ahead of time if they want to teleconference in, he said. They can still write comments, which the assembly has gotten plenty of over time, most of which are in favor of either not having the invocation or transitioning it to a moment of silence, he said.

“I have heard from a lot of constituents, but I’ve also heard from people all over the peninsula,” he said. “Because the assembly gets written comment both by email and written means … I’ve heard overwhelmingly that people would rather not have an invocation or have a moment of silence than to have a religious prayer.”

Per assembly policy, decisions to reconsider must receive a positive majority, which will be five votes if all nine members are present. Votes on the invocation issue have been split 6-3 on most decisions, with Dunne, Assembly President Kelly Cooper and assembly member Brandii Holmdahl voting to remove or weaken the invocation policy and the remaining members voting against.

However, there will be one new member at the upcoming meeting. Gilman resigned effective Jan. 18 and the assembly will select a successor at the beginning of the meeting, who will be sworn in and take the seat immediately. That was part of the reason Dunne said he chose to submit the ordinance — the composition of the assembly has changed since the last time they voted on the issue, and he said the result could be different.

“I know that it had been offered for introduction in the past, but because we will have two new members on Feb. 14, we have a new makeup of the assembly to see if the new members are open to introducing it,” he said. “I think instead of debating the ordinance on its merit, what I would hope would be that we can debate whether or not the public has the right have a public hearing on the ordinance.”

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

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