SOLDOTNA — A debate on the Kenai Peninsula over the separation of church and state continued Wednesday with a peaceful encounter between a group of praying Catholics and mostly secular counter-protesters.
About 30 people, many clutching rosaries and one with a cross that stood taller than him, recited prayers under a steady rain, at first in front of Soldotna's Planned Parenthood clinic and then in front of a Kenai Peninsula Borough building.
Around them, a smaller group of women calling for separation of church and state and in support of reproductive health services such as abortion chanted "My body, my choice" and "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries," raising their voices over those of the people praying.
Borough Assembly members in recent months weighed whether to do away with religious invocations before meetings, so as not to exclude or offend members of the community who might not hold the same beliefs. Invocations had almost always been delivered by Christian pastors.
After pastors and other community members spoke out against doing away with the invocations, an ordinance to scrap them never moved forward. The Assembly decided to open the invocation to anyone who wanted to sign up to give it, on a first-come, first-served basis.
But then, earlier this month, a woman who said she was with the national group The Satanic Temple read an invocation before an Assembly meeting that concluded with "Hail Satan." That stirred up emotions around the borough: Some people were glad to see another point of view, others were deeply offended, and some thought it was a political stunt to prove the point that invocations should be done away with altogether.
Wednesday's prayer gathering was a reaction to the Satanic Temple invocation, the group said.
"We were just coming here to pray," said Laura Burke of Kenai, who brought nine of her children with her. "We wanted to say sorry for the wrongs happening to our community. We were just doing it for ourselves and God."
The other group, some of whom were members of a secular humanist organization called Last Frontier Freethinkers, argued for getting prayer out of government business.
"There needs to be separation of church and state," said Peggy Peterson of Sterling. "For too long, Christianity has been the only voice. I'd be happy if they didn't even have a moment of silence. Just bring the meeting to order and get to work."
The two groups started in front of Soldotna's Planned Parenthood and then proceeded around the corner to the Kenai Peninsula Borough building, praying and protesting in front of each. One driver slowed to a crawl in front of the scene to watch, a passenger inside the vehicle slowly nodding her head before rolling away. Another person driving by shouted profanities against the religious group, and another vehicle circled the block multiple times to honk loudly and display a middle finger.
There were rumblings, which led back to a Facebook post, that someone might perform an exorcism on the borough's building to counter the invocation, though no exorcism occurred.
Iris Fontana, a member of the Satanic Temple and the woman who gave the invocation last week, said she has been "very surprised" at the response. She was at Wednesday's event.
The Assembly is set to revisit the idea of ending prayers before meetings.
Assembly member Brandii Holmdahl, representing the East Peninsula, said she plans to bring up for introduction again the ordinance that was ultimately not introduced in June.
"My biggest concern is that Assembly members and staff members are having to use so much time dealing with this issue," said Holmdahl.
Wednesday's events only furthered the need to eliminate the invocations, she said. "It takes away from the fact that we have been elected and hired to deal with tax code and property classification and things like that."
Another Assembly member, Vice President Brent Johnson, who represents the Central district, plans to propose at next week's meeting a moment of silence instead of an invocation.
Assembly President Blaine Gilman said Wednesday's prayer procession was not "sanctioned" by the borough.
But one Assembly member, Wayne Ogle of Nikiski, was present at the event Wednesday, though he said he was there as a Catholic and not as an elected official.
Ogle said the group decided to start at the Planned Parenthood clinic because "our leaders decided this was a good opportunity to express our views on both."