Assembly won’t budge on invocation

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly wants to let the courts decide on what to do about the invocation policy.

At its Tuesday meeting, the assembly again shot down a resolution that would have revised its standing invocation policy. The resolution, sponsored by assembly member Willy Dunne of Homer, was the latest in a long line of proposed ordinances or resolutions to change or remove the assembly’s tradition of beginning meetings with a religious invocation.

Dunne, who tried unsuccessfully to remove the invocation entirely with an ordinance that failed 7-2 at the March 21 meeting, proposed to implement a policy patterned after the Alaska Legislature’s standing policy, which requires anyone giving an invocation to begin with a statement expressing that “with the deepest respect or the religious beliefs of all borough residents, I offer the following” and keep to a time limit, keep prayers free from political statements and submit a copy of the prayer for the written record, among other requirements.

Dunne said he was still looking for solutions to his problems with the policy, which is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit between the borough and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska. The group sued in December 2016, calling the policy discriminatory because it requires anyone giving the invocation to be part of a religious group with an established presence on the Kenai Peninsula or a chaplain serving law enforcement agencies, fire departments, hospitals or other similar organizations. The policy, passed in October 2016, replaced an informal first-come, first-served policy the assembly had followed for nearly four decades.

“I’ve been asked by a lot of constituents to look for solutions,” Dunne said at the Tuesday meeting.

Dunne has been a controversial figure throughout the debate, leading up to his own lawsuit with the borough filed in early March. Because a clause in the borough’s contract with nonprofit Christian legal firm the Alliance Defending Freedom requires the borough to cooperate with public communications about the ACLU lawsuit, Dunne — who has consistently opposed the standing policy — got into a scuffle with the borough’s legal department when he tried to publish an op-ed in peninsula newspapers on the ordinance that would have eliminated the invocation.

The lawsuit is ongoing, though the borough on March 31 filed a motion to dismiss, according to court records. On Tuesday, the assembly approved an appropriation of an additional $45,000 to defend the borough against Dunne’s complaint without much discussion.

The assembly has been divided over the invocation issue, with rifts growing deeper as the months roll by. Discussions were tense Tuesday during a worksession scheduled by Assembly President Kelly Cooper on the invocation policy, with several assembly members saying they felt the worksession was unnecessary and Cooper and assembly member Dale Bagley getting into a back-and-forth about what Bagley said was her advocacy for a particular policy while serving as assembly president.

“I’m really unhappy that this is being brought forward again and again and again,” he said. “People I talk to are just really disgusted — they don’t understand that it’s a minority on the assembly that’s doing this over and over again … it’s really a form of bullying.”

Cooper, who has also consistently opposed the policy, clarified that she didn’t intend to push an agenda but was responding to the emails and public comments the assembly has received.

“There is no one orchestrating or advocating from behind the scenes,” she said. “I’ve made my position on this very clear and I pass the gavel when I do testify. I do not feel like there’s a concern or an issue with me stating how I feel about (the issue).”

The invocation issue first arrived on the assembly’s agenda in May 2016 and has been discussed at nearly every meeting since, with many hours of discussion devoted to it. Bagley said he hoped that if the assembly defeated the resolution Tuesday, they could go a few meetings without discussing it. Assembly member Stan Welles, who has always supported the invocation policy, said he opposed Dunne’s solution because potential changes could put the borough’s litigation at risk.

Assembly member Brent Hibbert also opposed it, saying though Dunne’s legislation was crafted after the Legislature’s policy, the Legislature had never been legally tested and it could still be a risk.

“I think the legislators down there in Juneau, they’re using it and it hasn’t been tested, and I don’t want to put something out here that we’ll come back in another year and get tested on,” Hibbert said. “I think whatever we do, we need to make sure that it’s the right thing.”

Dunne did earn some support for his resolution. Assembly member Wayne Ogle, who ultimately voted against it because he was concerned about some of the particulars of it, motioned to postpone the resolution to allow the assembly to make amendments, but the motion failed 6-3.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre urged the assembly to consider it as an alternative to the current policy, which he’s previously called flawed. Under the current policy, all any group needs to do is form a nonprofit to give an invocation, regardless of how offensive the group’s message may be.

“This is more inclusive,” he said. “It may not go all the way, but I think it is a step toward inclusiveness, which is what I think we need to get to in order to avoid further litigation.”

However, the final vote came out 6-3, with Cooper, Dunne and assembly member Jill Schaefer supporting it. The first status hearing on the ACLU litigation is scheduled for April 19 in Anchorage.

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

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