New rules restrict who can give invocations before Kenai Borough Assembly meetings

Atheists who want to read an invocation before a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly are out of luck.

The Assembly voted 6-3 in favor of a resolution at its Tuesday meeting that says the person delivering an invocation must be a representative of an Assembly-approved religious association that fits specific parameters.

The borough clerk will create and maintain a database of qualified religious associations and chaplains that send in written requests to deliver the prayers.

The resolution comes after several months of conversation and controversy over whether the Assembly should continue with invocations at all, who should be allowed to deliver them, or if a moment of silence should be adopted as a replacement.

Earlier this year, after the Assembly decided to extend the opportunity to give an invocation beyond just Christian pastors, an atheist opened a meeting with a secular speech in favor of reason instead of religious beliefs. But what really got people talking was a satanic invocation at a later meeting that ended with, "Hail Satan."

On Tuesday, the Assembly opted to keep such opening prayers in place, but with stricter rules.

As the new resolution spells out, those eligible to recite an invocation include religious associations "with an established presence in the Kenai Peninsula Borough that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective, or chaplains who may serve one or more of the fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals, or other similar organizations in the borough."

Those who want to say opening prayers will be scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis as long as each respondent only asks to provide one invocation at a time.

"Should a question arise as to the authenticity of a religious association," the ordinance said, the Assembly president will determine the eligibility of a group by using the same guidelines the IRS uses to qualify organizations for 501(c)(3) status.

Those 501(c)(3) organizations can't be operated for private interests, and are restricted in terms of political and lobbying activity, among other requirements, according to the IRS website.

"I think I have a right, as an elected official, because I'm Christian, I'm Catholic, all my decisions stem from my core belief, and I think I have a right to have people give an invocation and a prayer," said Assembly President Blaine Gilman, one of the members who introduced the resolution. "And I object to groups who are saying that we don't like your belief system and you can't have a prayer."

Dale Bagley, the other member who introduced the resolution, also sponsored an amendment that would have broadened the invocations to more than just religious groups. Neither Gilman nor Bagley returned phone calls seeking comment.

Brent Johnson, Assembly vice president, found the satanic invocation offensive, but he also wrote an ordinance after that invocation to trade opening prayers for a moment of silence. That ordinance failed. He recalled another ordinance earlier this year that would have done away with invocations altogether, but a tied Assembly vote prevented it from even being introduced.

"That shows how sensitive we are about religion, that we can't even talk about it," he said. "It's kind of a weird thing isn't it, keeping a list (of approved religious groups) in a country this free."

Johnson said he is a member of the Kasilof Community Church, and voted in favor of the current resolution.

The amendment to broaden the new rule by allowing groups that don't necessarily meet for religious purposes to offer opening remarks, was voted down Tuesday.

Most religious groups in the borough are Christian. That leaves out individuals who might practice a particular faith that doesn't have a presence in the borough as an organized group.

Iris Fontana, the woman who gave the satanic invocation, also spoke at Tuesday's meeting in opposition of the resolution.

"A strict policy that focuses on who's allowed to give an invocation rather than the content of the invocation itself is a blatant attempt at discrimination against the people who do not feel welcome in any of the current religious associations" that fall under the Assembly's criteria, she said.

Kelly Cooper, an Assembly member representing Homer, was one of the three dissenting votes, along with East Peninsula representative Brandii Holmdahl and South Peninsula representative Willy Dunne.

"I believe that everyone should be able to give an invocation," said Cooper, one of the sponsors of the amendment. "I don't believe that we should require they have a brick-and-mortar building or be tied to an official organization to come and wish the Assembly well. I think the agnostics are fine and atheists are fine and Christians are fine and Muslims are fine."

Johni Blankenship, the borough clerk, said exactly how the list of religious groups will be created is a work in progress.

"We're trying to define all those parameters at this point," she said. "The process for becoming part of the list is still being determined."