ACLU sues Kenai Peninsula Borough over religious invocation policy

From left to right: ACLU staff attorney Eric Glatt, plaintiff Lance Hunt and ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker. (Photo courtesy of the ACLU of Alaska)
From left to right: ACLU staff attorney Eric Glatt, plaintiff Lance Hunt and ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker. (Photo courtesy of the ACLU of Alaska)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska (ACLU) is following through with its threat to sue the Kenai Peninsula Borough over its invocation policy.

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In the lawsuit filed Dec. 14 in Anchorage Superior Court, the ACLU alleges the policy currently in place violates constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.

At its Anchorage headquarters, the ACLU of Alaska held a news conference to announce the lawsuit.

Eric Glatt, a staff attorney for the ACLU, said the Borough Assembly’s invocation policy is not defensible under the U.S. Constitution.

“Legislative invocations do have a long, storied history in America, but the kind of policy that the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has implemented is not of a kind that the Supreme Court has upheld as being constitutionally permissible,” Glatt said.

In the filing, the ACLU alleges the invocation policy violates four constitutional rights — the guarantee of separation of church and state, freedom of speech, freedom of association and equal protection under the law.

They are seeking a court ruling that the policy is unconstitutional under state and federal law.

The controversy began this summer when Iris Fontana, 27, a member of the Satanic Temple and one of two plaintiffs in the case, gave an invocation ending with the words “Hail Satan.”

In response, the Borough Assembly passed a resolution on Oct. 11, restricting the invocation to individuals and religious organizations on a pre-approved list.

The other plaintiff in the case, Lance Hunt, is an atheist who gave an invocation before the Assembly this past July. Under the current policy, he is barred from giving future invocations.

“I’m fighting for the rights of everybody in the Borough to participate in all manners and facets of the Assembly in which the public is allowed,” Hunt said.

The ACLU of Alaska has openly criticized the invocation policy since it was first instituted and cites a 2014 supreme court ruling as a legal precedent.

“This is why the ACLU exists; it’s to take on important constitutional cases that really affect the day-to-day lives of Alaskans,” Joshua Decker, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, said.

The deeply divided Borough Assembly has attempted to revise or rescind the controversial invocation policy multiple times. Those attempts have failed.

Assembly Member Stan Welles has been among those who have staunchly defended the policy.

“I accept the challenge to support the Constitution,” Welles said. “The Supreme Court has never promulgated a law separating church and state.”

In preparation for a lawsuit, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre proposed an ordinance on Nov. 22 that would have appropriated $75,000 to defend the invocation policy in court.

That ordinance was later withdrawn.

Members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, along with the Borough Clerk and Borough Attorney, were not available for comment on the lawsuit.

The Borough Assembly will now have 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.

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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