Assembly to consider invocation policy revisions

With a lawsuit filed in court against its standing invocation policy, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will again consider an amendment to the rules at its Tuesday meeting.

Assembly President Kelly Cooper has submitted a resolution amending the policy about who can give invocations before the assembly’s regular meetings. As it currently stands, those wishing to give an invocation before the assembly have to be members of a religious group with an established presence on the Kenai Peninsula or chaplains serving fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals or other similar organizations in the borough.

The revision, some of which she has tried to make several times through amendments but has failed each time, would change the word “prayer” in the policy to “invocation” and would add language allowing groups that meet for the primary purpose of sharing an “interest or belief that is very important to the attendees and reasonably appears to meet the Internal Revenue Service’s tax exemption criteria.” One provision of the current policy is that if the authenticity of an organization comes into question, the assembly president should use the IRS tax exemption criteria as a guideline.

Later in the policy, the revision includes a statement adding to the article that no guidelines shall be set on the invocations content except that it should not be proselytizing or disparaging another faith. The new line would recommend that each invocation not be more than three minutes long and that the invocations be “free from personal political views, sectarian controversies, and absent any apologies for others.”

The resolution also offers a provision stating that if no one is scheduled to give the invocation, the assembly can proceed without one.

After the assembly passed the original policy in early October, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska sent a letter to the borough telling the assembly to drop its invocation policy or face litigation. The assembly did pass an amendment deleting the policy in its entirety at the Nov. 22 meeting, but during a reconsideration on Dec. 6 voted to reverse that decision, reviving the original policy passed in October.

The ACLU then filed a lawsuit Dec. 14 against the borough, claiming that the policy is discriminatory. The suit seeks for the Alaska Superior Court to declare the policy unconstitutional under both the Alaska Constitution and the U.S. Constitution and award the plaintiffs, Lance Hunt and Iris Fontana, their attorneys’ fees and damages.

Cooper has been an outspoken opponent of the invocation policy since it was introduced and passed in October. She wrote in her memo that even if the borough wins the lawsuit, the invocation policy would still cause controversy.

“Even if we win the lawsuit, in my view this policy of discriminating against members of our community will continue to cause division and bad feelings among our residents,” she wrote. “We also may be subject to other litigation as more cases are decided across the country.”

To provide for funding to defend the borough in the lawsuit, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre has also submitted a budget transfer request of $50,000 for the legal department. He wrote in a memo to the assembly that outside counsel will be necessary to properly defend the borough. The funds would be reallocated from the mayor’s office to the legal department, and would lapse if they are not used, according to the memo.

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

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