Kenai Borough Assembly reverses course, votes to keep religious invocations

Although the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly seemed last month to finally settle the issue of who can give invocations before its meetings, it reversed course again Tuesday night.

The Assembly voted again on a resolution that would have tossed out a controversial rule that only representatives from Assembly-approved religious groups (or chaplains who also fit certain parameters) can deliver invocations.

While the body passed the amended resolution 5-4 two weeks ago, it didn't get enough votes this time around with one of its members absent, instead failing in a 4-4 tie.

The resolution would have taken the Assembly back to its old process for invocations, where anyone could sign up to give one on a first-come, first-served basis.

Assembly President Kelly Cooper and members Brandii Holmdahl, Gary Knopp and Paul Fischer voted in favor of the resolution. Assembly members Blaine Gilman, Wayne Ogle, Dale Bagley and Stan Welles voted against it, and Willy Dunne was absent. Previously, Dunne had voted in favor of getting rid of the religious rules.

[Kenai borough Assembly votes — again — to change invocation rules]

"I thought the old (religious) policy was better than no policy," said Gilman, who asked for the reconsideration. "I think that the existing policy that we have in place is not discriminatory. It treats all religions the same."

Joshua Decker, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said in the past that the ACLU wouldn't rule out a lawsuit "if that's what upholding the Constitution takes." Decker couldn't be reached Wednesday to discuss whether the organization might now be planning to sue.

[Satanic Temple invocation opens Kenai Peninsula Borough meeting]

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre had previously asked the Assembly to appropriate $75,000 of the borough's money to spend on possible future court battles over the religious restrictions. Johni Blankenship, the borough clerk, said the mayor plans to bring up funding for legal fights again in January.

Cooper, the president, said she plans to bring forward an amendment in January that will propose opening up invocations to not just religious groups but all groups in the borough, as well as individuals.

"I still think it excludes groups, it excludes individuals," she said. "It's still not right."

A debate over what types of invocations to allow before the borough's Assembly meetings came to a head in August when a woman read a satanic invocation. The Assembly has put forward several pieces of legislation dealing with the issue this year.