Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approves new policy to rein in ‘proselytizing’ invocations

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The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly hears public testimony about a proposed change to its invocation policy on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Riley Board/KDLL)

Volunteer chaplains will soon deliver invocations before Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meetings, rather than members of the public. The proposed change garnered mixed reactions from the public, but sponsors say the change comes about after invocations have become more like political and religious speeches than solemnizing moments.

Invocations are given at the start of Assembly meetings to emphasize the importance of the gathering, and ask for support from the Assembly. But a resolution sponsored by Borough Mayor Peter Micciche, as well as members Tyson Cox and Kelly Cooper, says invocations have strayed from their original purpose.

“The bottom line is, we’ve seen more and more — what’s the word — proselytizing. More and more lectures,” Micciche said during a Tuesday meeting. “More and more sort of politically motivated speeches that seldom ask for any help or support from the Assembly.”

Now, the Assembly will rely on a rotating group of emergency department volunteer chaplains to deliver an invocation of less than two minutes at the start of meetings. The mayor said the Assembly will likely rely on the chaplains from Soldotna-based Central Emergency Services.

The borough was sued in 2016 for its invocation policy, which only allowed individuals associated with a formal organization to give an invocation. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska brought the suit on behalf of three peninsula residents who had been denied the opportunity — an atheist, a member of The Satanic Temple and a Jewish person.

In 2018, a Superior Court judge found the policy unconstitutional, and the borough revised it to allow anyone in the community to give an invocation.

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Keith Hamilton testifies in support of a resolution to turn invocations over to volunteer chaplains with local emergency departments. (Riley Board/KDLL)

But the resolution’s sponsors say now, the invocation has become a forum for politically and religiously motivated speeches.

“We’ve had a lot of invocations that have been speeches, sermons, singing, hymns,” said Vice President Tyson Cox, one of the new resolution’s sponsors. “And actually, they’re all things that I don’t have a problem with, they are just things that are not appropriate for our meetings.”

He said the invocation is meant for the Assembly.

“It’s for us to have the time to prepare ourselves for the decisions that we have to make during the day, and during this evening. So that’s what I look at it for,” Cox said. “And I do not believe, I truly do not believe the majority of our decisions over the past several years have been for that.”

Borough Attorney Sean Kelley said the current resolution is a safe option, legally.

“So long as the borough is not attempting to use the policy to advance or favor a particular religion, or faith. So long as the borough maintains a policy of non-discrimination, so long as it is clear that the public is not forced to participate in any way — I think all those boxes are checked,” Kelley said.

He said chaplains are trained to serve a religiously diverse population.

“Importantly, a policy cannot aim to exclude a particular belief, and in the present context, the services of a chaplain are not based…as far as I understand it, there’s no religious test or any preference for any particular affiliation in becoming a chaplain,” he said.

At its meeting Tuesday night, Assembly members expressed broad support for the change, while public testimony was mixed.

Keith Hamilton, who helped found the chaplain program at Central Emergency Services, supported the resolution.

“They don’t come from any one denomination. They’re trained in critical incident stress debriefing,” he said of the chaplains. “They enter homes in families’ worst possible times, and they step in and become a breath of fresh air for people, whether they have a faith experience or not.”

But Soldotna City Council Member Chera Wackler showed concern about further litigation.

“In short, this is stupid, it’s unnecessary, it will inevitably embroil us in another lawsuit, and it’s a clear attempt to violate religious freedom, free expression and the Establishment Clause, despite the assertion that it follows the law,” she said. “Intent is everything.”

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Soldotna City Council member Chera Wackler testified against the borough Assembly’s proposed invocation policy change. (Riley Board/KDLL)

Adam Bertoldo told the Assembly he was opposed to limiting public expression.

“I don’t like all the prayers that are given,” he said. “But I do like that the people have the opportunity to come before the Assembly, and give the prayer before the meeting. This is the people’s Assembly.”

The Assembly passed the resolution unanimously. The new policy goes into effect Jan. 1, 2024. There is one more invocation scheduled for this year under the old policy; it’s set to be delivered by Iris Fontana, one of the plaintiffs from the 2018 suit, who is a member of The Satanic Temple.

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