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Kenai Borough Assembly readies for lawsuit over religious invocation rule

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 4, 2017

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly decided Tuesday night to keep in place religious restrictions on who can give an invocation before its meetings, in the face of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.

Also Tuesday night, the Assembly passed a resolution to transfer $50,000 from the borough mayor's department to the legal department for the costs of litigation with the ACLU.

The Assembly voted 6-3 against a resolution to allow a broader group of people to give invocations. The current rule states only chaplains or representatives of religious groups approved by the Assembly, and who fit specific parameters, can give invocations.

Assembly members Blaine Gilman, Wayne Ogle, Dale Bagley, Stan Welles, Paul Fischer and Gary Knopp voted against the resolution to open up invocations to a broader group of people. Members Kelly Cooper, Brandii Holmdahl and Willy Dunne voted in favor. (Knopp was seated on the Assembly until midnight, when he was replaced by new member Brent Hibbert.)

In a memorandum to Assembly members about the $50,000 for litigation, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said the law "is complex and in flux" across the country when it comes to such invocation policies.

"Outside counsel is needed to properly represent the borough in this lawsuit," Navarre said.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit against the borough in December over "unconstitutional discrimination about who may give invocations at Borough Assembly meetings."

Tuesday's vote is the latest in months of back-and-forth about the borough's invocation policy. The discussion began earlier this summer, when the borough decided to open up invocations to more than Christian pastors. Controversy flared in August, when a woman read a satanic invocation.

In October, the Assembly implemented rules that said whoever gives an invocation before a meeting has to represent a religious association approved by the Assembly that fits its guidelines. Or, the person needs to be a chaplain.

In an October meeting, when he was Assembly president, Gilman said "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."

On Wednesday, he said he couldn't discuss the policy.

"Assembly members really can't comment on this anymore because of the litigation status," he said.

Assembly President Cooper said in a memo to other members the religious rules have "sparked a difficult controversy" in the borough. She introduced the resolution that failed.

"Even if we win this lawsuit, in my view this policy preventing individuals who aren't either a chaplain or from a religious association with an established presence in the borough from giving invocations," Cooper wrote, "will continue to cause division and negative feelings among our residents."