Kenai Borough Assembly keeps invocation, hears from deeply divided residents

Invocations, or prayers, will continue to be said at the beginning of Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meetings, despite recent debate about whether they are appropriate.

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Religious leaders testified like Dr. Keith Hamilton, the president of a local Christian College, who spoke in support of keeping the invocation.

The Assembly voted at their regular meeting on Tuesday not to introduce an ordinance that would have eliminated the invocation and another that would have changed the invocation to a moment of silence.

But that was only after impassioned testimony from deeply divided residents.

“A moment of silence is an uneasy and somewhat distracting and awkward time. No one really knows what to do at that time. I always pray quietly but there is a pervasive uneasiness that always fill[s] in the room,” Hamilton said.

Earlier this month an invocation by a member of the Satanic Temple was offered before the Assembly sparking a protest, and a counter protest.

Some residents have said that prayer at a public meeting is inappropriate – and that the invocation, as practiced, seems exclusionary to non-Judeo-Christian faiths. Many want it eliminated or a moment of silence instituted. Others, Christian, say it must stay, but most do not want faith leaders from other religions to be allowed to participate.

Velvet Danielson of Soldotna is one of them. She cited a Peninsula Clarion newspaper poll that said that the majority of local people surveyed preferred Christian prayer.

“The majority, 64 percent are not in favor of a non-Christian prayer, which I am definitely not either. I was very, very appalled that this would be let to go on in this building. And I would like to publicly un-hail Satan,” Danielson said.

Homer Assembly Member, Kelly Cooper asked a follow-up question.

“So you believe the invocation should only be from Christian denominations?” Cooper said.

“Absolutely,” Danielson said.

“And do you not believe in freedom of religion?” Cooper said.

“I believe in the constitution, I support the constitution but it is common sense that biblical denominations would be the ones that honor God and our community and our country,” Danielson said.

South Peninsula Assembly Member, Willy Dunne pressed Danielson further.

“My question was similar to Ms. Coopers, but I guess specifically, you would think the Borough Assembly should prohibit say Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu believers from giving the invocation?” Dunne said.

“Absolutely. This is a Christian Nation,” Danielson said.

On the other side of the issue was Carrie Henson, of Soldotna.

“Hello, it is your friendly neighborhood Atheist again,” Henson said.

Henson said community members need to stop labeling each other and explained her beliefs.

“Because I am free from religious dogma I judge other not based on their opinions or ideologies, but by their actions and how they treat people, and especially those that they may not have much in common with,” Henson said.

Debbie Carey from Ninilchik suggested the Assembly read a mission statement instead of the invocation.

“State what you want to accomplish, how you are going to accomplish it and why you are here in the first place. This could be read at the end of the pledge by either an Assembly Member or a constituent of the borough,” Carey said.

Assembly Member Gary Knopp, representing the Kalifornsky area, said that he believed removing the prayer could lead to removing the pledge of allegiance, also said at the start of meetings, and he questioned Carey’s idea.

“If we don’t draw the lines, at what point do we quit saying the pledge? I want to throw that at you, that’s what is coming next,” Knopp said.

“I don’t see the mission statement as taking God out of the room. I think the mission statement is inclusive of God because God wants us to do good and wants us to state that we are doing good,” Carey said.

State Senator Peter Micciche, who represents the Central Peninsula said he hopes the Assembly can follow the model of the state legislature, allowing people from diverse belief systems to say the invocation.

“It is not just about your individual beliefs; it’s recognizing everyone’s beliefs. So I hope that you will put some sideboards on what happens when someone provides an invocation,” Micciche said.

But instead the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly decided not to address the issue that has been bubbling up for months and is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Both the ordinance that would have done away with the invocation and the one that would have replaced it with a moment of silence failed to advance to introduction after a 4-4 vote.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Assembly Member Gary Knopp.

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Daysha Eaton, KMXT - Kodiak
Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.