Assembly to consider invocation policy

The topic of appropriate invocations will come back before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at its next meeting on Oct. 11.

The borough assembly is scheduled to consider a resolution revising its policy governing who can give the invocation before the body’s meetings. The resolution, sponsored by Borough Assembly President Blaine Gilman and assembly member Dale Bagley, will go into effect immediately if the borough assembly passes it at the Tuesday meeting. Because it is a resolution, it can be considered and passed at one meeting rather than having to delay for public hearing.

Controversy arose over the borough’s long tradition of beginning meetings with an invocation this summer when several members of the public said the invocation at a public meeting made them uncomfortable. An ordinance to remove the place in the agenda for the invocation died before introduction, and the borough assembly instead opted to allow anyone interested from any religion to offer the invocation.

Outcry from some members of the community arose again when a member of the Temple of Satan offered an invocation before the assembly in August. One member of the borough assembly left the room and several members of the audience as well as some borough staff sat instead of standing. About a week later, a group of members of the Catholic Church offered prayer in front of the borough assembly building and counter-protestors staged a protest around them.

Two assembly members filed ordinances for the following meeting related to the invocation, one transitioning it to a moment of silence and another eliminating it, but both failed before introduction.

“If the assembly is to continue allowing invocation to be offered at the beginning of its meetings, it is important to do so in a manner consistent with the law,” Gilman and Bagley wrote in their memo to the assembly for the most recent attempt to address the invocations. “This resolution would establish a policy containing guidelines that are intended to be consistent with the current law governing invocations offered for local governmental legislative bodies.”

The policy they outline in the resolution would set up formal guidelines for what is already being done in some form. A change made earlier this year — in which Gilman began prefacing the prayer with a statement that no one has to participate in the prayer and may stand or sit as they prefer — would be written into policy. No member of the assembly or borough employee would be able to direct the public to participate in the prayer or make note of a person’s presence, absence, attention or inattention during the prayer, nor “indicate that decisions of the assembly will in any way be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity.”

Any person on what the proposal calls an Associations List could offer invocations. The borough clerk would post a notice on the borough’s website calling for all religious organizations with an established presence in the Kenai Peninsula Borough that regularly meet to “share a religious perspective,” or chaplains who serve fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospital or other similar organizations. The authorized leader of one of those organizations or a chaplain would be able to apply to he borough clerk’s office to offer an invocation.

Currently, no formal policy exists for what qualifies someone to offer a prayer before the borough assembly. Policies on invocations at borough assemblies around Alaska vary — some, such as the Northwest Arctic Borough, simply list a place for an invocation in their municipal code, while the Fairbanks North Star Borough policy specifically says, “Nonsectarian Invocation” and others, including the Municipality of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, have no place in their assembly procedures for an invocation, according to their municipal codes.

Under Gilman and Bagley’s resolution, the borough clerk would compile and maintain a database of the qualifying associations and chaplains that have submitted requests to deliver the invocation. Invocations would be scheduled on a first-come, first-serve basis, and if no one is available to give the invocation, the assembly president may designate an assembly member to give the invocation. That being said, though invocations are accounted for on the assembly’s agenda, they are not required to be given if no one signs up to give them.

The intention is not to be exclusive, according to the resolution. If a question arises about the legitimacy of an applicant, the assembly president will judge by whether the organization applying would qualify under the Internal Revenue Service’s criteria for tax-exempt status. The only guidelines for the content of an invocation would be not to proselytize or advance any faith or to disparage another person’s religion or lack thereof.

“The policy is intended to be and shall be applied in a way that is all-inclusive of every diverse religious association serving the residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough,” the resolution states. “The Association List is compiled and used for purposes of logistics, efficiency, and equal opportunity for all of the community’s religious leaders, who may themselves choose whether to respond to the assembly’s invitation and participate.”

The resolution will come before the assembly at its Oct. 11 meeting.

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

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