Latest effort to revise Kenai invocation policy stalls

For the past four months, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has debated whether it should restrict who is allowed to give the invocation, or prayer, that begins each meeting.

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The controversy began in early August, when a member of the Satanic Temple gave the invocation. In response, the Borough Assembly instituted a new policy in which only people or associations on a pre-approved list may give the invocation.

Critics have said this restrictive policy may put the Borough at risk of a lawsuit, but efforts to amend it have stalled.

According to a memorandum released from Borough Mayor Mike Navarre’s office on Nov. 9, the Assembly has received “numerous comments challenging the legality” of the invocation policy.

Borough Assembly President Kelly Cooper and Assembly Member Dale Bagley introduced a resolution on Nov. 22 that would have amended the current policy.

In a statement to the Borough Assembly, President Cooper argued that they should not restrict who is allowed to give the invocation.

“In my opinion, the policy we now have has many problems. The very notion that any belief system would want to exclude another belief is beyond me. We represent every single person in this Borough,” said Cooper.

For nearly an hour, the Assembly heard public testimony on the resolution.

Nancy Hendrickson of Kenai expressed frustration about the amount of time the Assembly has spent debating the invocation issue.

“That you would even consider spending any more time or money on this issue troubles me. Each of you has a responsibility to uphold the Constitution. I’m charging you with that responsibility this night,” Hendrickson said.

Sterling resident Peggy Peterson asked the Assembly to reconsider the idea of replacing the invocation with a moment of silence.

“Having a moment of silence does not prohibit free exercise of religion. Every person here would be free to pray as they saw fit. That would not only protect religious freedom, it would avoid alienating members of the community. An added bonus? It doesn’t violate the Constitution,” Peterson said.

Eric Glatt, staff attorney for the ACLU of Alaska reiterated that the Borough should not control who is allowed to give the invocation.

“Tests that control which members of the public may offer invocations before Assembly meetings violate core constitutional principles.,” Glatt said. “The ACLU believes the best policy is the simplest policy. Return to the successful practice of allowing anyone in the Borough to give an invocation on a first come, first served basis or do without invocations altogether.”

After some debate, the Assembly approved an amended version of the resolution in a 5 to 4 vote, which would have eliminated the invocation policy altogether. Assembly Members Blaine Gilman, Wayne Ogle, Dale Bagley and Stan Welles voted against the amended resolution.

But as the meeting came to a close, Assembly Member Gilman gave notice of reconsideration. This temporarily halts any action on the issue and returns the Assembly to the current invocation policy.

Currently, any Assembly Member can give notice of reconsideration unless a resolution passes by super-majority.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will now have the option to reconsider the resolution at their next meeting on Dec. 6.

Shahla Farzan is a reporter with KBBI - Homer.

Shahla first caught the radio bug as a world music host for WMHC, the oldest college radio station operated exclusively by women. Before coming to KBBI, she worked at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and as a science writer for the California Environmental Legacy Project. She is currently completing her Ph.D in ecology at the University of California-Davis, where she studies native bees.

When she's not producing audio stories, you can find Shahla beachcombing or buried in a good book.

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