A member of the Catholic Church holds her rosary as she prays near a Planned Parenthood clinic in this Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016 in Soldotna, Alaska. Members of the church gathered at the clinic before walking to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Administration Building to pray after a Satanic invocation was given to open the Aug. 9 borough assembly meeting. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, File)

A member of the Catholic Church holds her rosary as she prays near a Planned Parenthood clinic in this Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016 in Soldotna, Alaska. Members of the church gathered at the clinic before walking to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Administration Building to pray after a Satanic invocation was given to open the Aug. 9 borough assembly meeting. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, File)

Invocation policy lawsuit moves to federal court

A lawsuit over the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s invocation policy has moved to a federal court.

The lawsuit, Hunt v. Kenai Peninsula Borough, was filed Dec. 14 in the Superior Court of Alaska in Anchorage. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, which filed the suit on behalf of plaintiffs Lance Hunt and Iris Fontana, both Kenai Peninsula residents, claiming the assembly’s policy on who can deliver invocations is discriminatory. The policy, enacted in October, states that someone must be a member of a religious organization with an established presence in the Kenai Peninsula Borough or a chaplain serving fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospital or other similar organizations in the borough.

The borough was served with a summons on Jan. 4, according to online court documents. The attorney defending the borough, Kevin Clarkson, filed a motion Monday to move the case from the state courts to the U.S. District Court.

Clarkson, who practices with Anchorage firm Brena, Bell and Clarkson and has litigated constitutional issues before, said the borough had the option to move the case to federal court because it raises constitutional issues. It could have been heard in state court, and the move is a matter of preference, he said.

“We think the borough’s policy is constitutionally defensible, so we’ll let the court decide,” Clarkson said.

The borough keeps staff attorneys but opted for outside counsel. During its Jan. 3 meeting, the assembly approved Borough Mayor Mike Navarre’s request to transfer $50,000 from his office to the legal department to hire outside counsel for the case.

The ACLU didn’t have any comment on the move as of Tuesday afternoon, said Executive Director Joshua Decker. The motion was approved Monday.

The lawsuit claims the policy is discriminatory and seeks for the court to deem it unconstitutional by both the Alaska Constitution and the U.S. Constitution and to award damages to Hunt and Fontana.

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

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