Ordinance to remove prayer in assembly meetings struck down

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly begins every meeting with a prayer.

Technically called an invocation, the borough code provides for local religious leaders to come an offer a prayer for the meeting. Those interested apply to the borough to offer a prayer and are selected by the assembly president.

Some have raised concerns about the presence of religion in the government proceedings, saying a prayer of a particular religion would offend those of different or no faith. Multiple people said in public testimony at a borough meeting earlier this year that the prayer made them uncomfortable. 

Assembly president Blaine Gilman proposed an ordinance to be introduced at the borough’s Tuesday meeting that would have removed the invocation from the meeting procedures. He said in his memo to assembly that others had approached him and expressed “serious discomfort” with the prayer.

“It is important that the assembly does what it reasonably can to help all residents feel welcome at assembly meetings,” Gilman wrote in the memo. “Additionally, if the invocation practice continues the assembly will have to develop policies and procedures to attempt to comply with legal requirements.”

However, the ordinance never made it to introduction. Several members of the assembly said they felt it was not worth a discussion or public hearing and wanted to see the ordinance killed before introduction.

Assembly member Gary Knopp said he strongly opposed introducing the ordinance in the first place.

“To me, it’s somewhat appalling that we’re even having this conversation,” Knopp said. “I can’t hardly even fathom that we want to ban invocation at these meetings. We’ve never denied anybody the right to speak or give invocation.”

Several people at the meeting also said they felt it was an extreme measure. Some felt the invocation procedure should be more inclusive and open to all organized religious groups; others said if someone felt uncomfortable during the prayer, he or she could leave the room for the prayer and return when it is over.

Keith Hamilton, who has delivered the invocation to the borough assembly before, said invocations occur at many levels of government and the borough should continue to hold them.

“To delete (the invocation) would change the fabric of our meeting and our religious liberties,” Hamilton said. “Find another that is deemed best to protect our religious liberty here this evening.”

Assembly member Brandii Holmdahl challenged him, asking if he would be comfortable with all groups coming in to offer prayer.

“How do you feel about the Church of Satan coming in and saying they have a right to come in and pray?” she asked.

Hamilton answered that he personally does not agree with that prayer because it would not represent the majority of people, but he said all people should have the chance to offer an invocation. 

Albert Weeks, who said he has served both as a pastor and as a military chaplain, said the borough should change the language of the prayer or the qualifications to be more inclusive of all groups rather than eliminate the prayer outright. Those who wish to pray should be part of a recognized religious group, though, he said.

“The military has definitions for how they approve who comes and who speaks and who prays,” Weeks said. “One of the things they look at is organized, recognized, ordained individuals. … If someone were to come from the Church of Satan and say they wanted to give an invocation, my first response would be to do the same thing the federal government does when somebody wishes to be a chaplain in the military.”

Several assembly members said they agreed with that requirement and would rather see the opportunity for invocation broadened than eliminated. Gilman himself said he changed his mind before introduction and chose to withdraw his support, but other assembly members chose to pick up the ordinance for introduction so the discussion could be had.

“I think the direction to go is to be broad-based, which seems to be what people want, and first come, first served,” Gilman said. “What happens is if people want to give the invocation, they can contact the clerk, who will (process the applications) first come, first served.”

Assembly member Willy Dunne said he saw several “red flags” during the conversation about the ordinance and would have liked to see it introduced. The proposed condition of limiting the invocation to those ordained in recognized religions seems like a religious test, he said.

“Everybody is free to pray the way they want to, but we’ve gotten some written testimony too that people feel like the public shouldn’t be subjected to religious viewpoints,” Dunne said. “I would hate to see any kind of religious test imposed on anybody … before they gave an invocation. I would like to see this introduced for public hearing to have a more healthy discussion.

The assembly denied the introduction of the ordinance 4-4. In the case of a tied vote, an ordinance fails.

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

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