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Kenai borough Assembly votes — again — to change invocation rules

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: November 23, 2016
  • Published November 23, 2016

In what's become a common occurrence in the last few months, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has again voted to change the rules governing who can deliver invocations before its meetings.

The Assembly voted 5-4 Tuesday night to pass an amendment that gets rid of a recently approved set of controversial rules that puts religious restrictions on who can give those invocations.

The change would return the Assembly's policy to what it looked like earlier this year — a first-come, first-served system that allows anyone to sign up to give an invocation before a meeting. That was how it worked before an atheist and, most notably, a satanist delivered invocations over the summer, leading to conversations about whether there should be a stricter set of rules.

Tuesday's amendment was introduced by Assembly member Gary Knopp.

But the change is not certain yet.

Assembly member Blaine Gilman, former president of the body, asked for reconsideration of the amendment at the next meeting. That means the current policy  — which says the person delivering an invocation has to represent a religious group approved by the Assembly and fit a certain set of rules — stays frozen in place for now.

In all, the Assembly has put forward six separate pieces of legislation regarding invocations this year.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and national nonprofit the Freedom from Religion Foundation both called that policy "unconstitutional" after the Assembly approved it in October.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre then vetoed the religious rule but the Assembly voted to override his objection.

"I think when the mayor vetoed the policy the first time around he was definitely animated by the constitutional concerns we had raised," said Joshua Decker, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska. "I think our constitutional concerns resonated with a lot of them. We're happy that they listened."

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly discusses an amendment to its invocation policy on Tuesday.

Decker also said that when the issue comes up again at the next meeting, "our hope and expectation is that they will continue to do the right thing and uphold the Constitution."

Gilman didn't return a call seeking comment about his notice to reconsider the issue.

"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," Gilman said at an Assembly meeting in October.

Gilman and Assembly members Wayne Ogle, Dale Bagley and Stan Welles opposed the amendment to get rid of the religious rule.

"I have been opposed to excluding anyone from the very beginning," new Assembly President Kelly Cooper said Wednesday. "It has nothing to do with legality. It has to do with everyone having the same rights."

She co-sponsored a resolution that would have broadened the religious rule to secular groups and individuals. But there was no need to introduce that resolution Tuesday night after the body voted to toss the rule out.

An ordinance that would have appropriated $75,000 in borough money to fight future court battles over the religious rule was withdrawn as a result of the Assembly approving the amendment. Decker said in the past that while the ACLU hopes not to sue, it wouldn't rule it out, "if that's what upholding the Constitution takes."

Amid all the debate about religious invocations, a woman from an atheist group actually gave the invocation at Tuesday's meeting. Cooper said she decided to allow it after she looked up "religion" in the dictionary and found a definition she felt was broad enough to encompass atheism. She even included the Merriam-Webster definition in her documents for the meeting.

"I would love if everyone would understand," Cooper said, "this is a right that should be afforded to everyone."

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