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Kenai Assembly member sues borough and mayor in battle over invocations

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: March 15, 2017
  • Published March 15, 2017

A member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is suing the borough and its mayor, Mike Navarre, in the ongoing saga of how the borough handles invocations before meetings.

Assembly member Willy Dunne, who represents the south Peninsula, alleges in a lawsuit filed March 9 that the borough is unconstitutionally blocking him from communicating with constituents, and that a new borough policy has led to some residents being denied the chance to give an invocation before a meeting.

In the lawsuit, Dunne said the borough is prohibiting him from publishing an op-ed in local newspapers explaining an ordinance he introduced regarding invocations. The suit also says he might even be prohibited from talking about the ordinance at an upcoming Assembly meeting.

The chronicle of the Kenai borough's changing rules governing invocations before Assembly meetings stretches back to last summer. Before then, invocations were almost always given by Christian pastors. Then, in June, the Assembly began a conversation about doing away with opening prayers altogether over concerns that some people felt excluded. Instead, the body decided to broaden the pool beyond just Christian pastors and said anyone who wanted to deliver an invocation could sign up on a first-come, first-served basis.

Then, before an August meeting, a woman gave a satanic invocation, sparking more debate about what should be allowed. For months, Assembly members have gone back and forth about what the rules should be.

As it stands now, the Assembly has placed restrictions on who can give an invocation: only chaplains or representatives of religious groups that the Assembly has approved, and who fit specific parameters. In December, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska sued the borough, citing "unconstitutional discrimination" over those rules.

Dunne, the Assembly member now suing the borough, recently proposed an ordinance that says the borough should get rid of invocations before its meetings altogether. He believes the current policy is unconstitutional, and in his lawsuit says he's aware of "four borough residents who have been denied the opportunity to give an invocation under the new policy, including a Jewish woman from Homer."

The thrust of the suit is over Dunne's plans to explain his ordinance to the public. He prepared an op-ed to submit to newspapers, but the lawsuit alleges borough attorney Colette Thompson told him he couldn't publish the piece in newspapers serving the borough. Doing so, the suit said, would violate a contract Mayor Navarre entered into with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian conservative nonprofit group providing legal representation to the borough in the ACLU case.

On top of that, the suit claims, "Thompson told Dunne that she could not say with certainty that he was allowed … to speak to his own ordinance at the upcoming Assembly meeting." His ordinance is set to come up for discussion and a vote on March 21.

"Dunne has a constitutional right to communicate with his constituents, his fellow Assembly Members, and with other Borough residents and the public at large, concerning his proposed legislation and other matters relating to the religious invocation controversy," the lawsuit says. It also says Navarre entered into the ADF contract "without input from or approval by" the Assembly.

Neither Thompson nor Navarre returned calls for this story.

The suit asks that the court declare the borough's restrictions on what Dunne can publish as being in violation of the Alaska Constitution. It also asks the court to rule that the provisions in the ADF contract that restrict communications from borough Assembly members and employees about the invocation issue are unenforceable.

At a court hearing Thursday morning, Dunne will seek an injunction to allow him to publish his op-ed piece.

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