The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed a resolution on Oct. 11, revising its policy on the invocation that begins each meeting. The new policy places restrictions on who is allowed to give the invocation.
Under the newly-approved resolution, the borough clerk will maintain a list of qualifying religious organizations. Only people or associations on this list will be allowed to give the invocation that begins each Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting.
The Assembly was deeply divided over the proposed resolution, which was approved in a 6-3 vote.
Assembly Member Stan Welles supported the resolution. By definition, an invocation is always a Christian prayer, Welles argued.
“Invocation directly points toward prayer and prayer points to our Lord God, who is our Creator. And there is only one,” Welles said.
But South Peninsula representative Willy Dunne said it is not the Borough’s place to decide which religious organizations can provide the invocation.
“I think our responsibility here is to carry out the business of the Borough, not debate which religion is appropriate and which one isn’t,” Dunne said.
The controversy over the Borough Assembly invocation began this summer when it was given by Iris Fontana, a member of the Satanic Temple.
Fontana attended the Oct. 11 Borough Assembly meeting. She said the Assembly should not restrict who can give the invocation.
“A strict policy that focuses on who is allowed to give an invocation is a blatant attempt at discrimination,” Fontana said.
The Assembly also heard testimony from other members of the public. The overwhelming majority did not support the proposed invocation policy.
Soldotna resident Carrie Henson argued the United States was built on religious freedom.
“America has never been a Christian nation. We are a free nation,” Henson said.
Bruce Wall of Soldotna said he had planned to give an invocation at an upcoming Borough Assembly meeting. Under the new resolution, he will not be allowed to do so.
“Because I support my ex-wife’s right to living in a same-gender relationship, I’m no longer allowed to fully participate in my church. So I’m not affiliated with a religious organization and this resolution would prevent me from offering invocations here,” Wall said.
Judith Jenkinson of Kasilof chided the Assembly for what she said was a restriction of free speech.
“You are not being very open. I am so embarrassed to recognize you sitting there, in your religious, pious position,” Jenkinson said.
Under the new policy, only pre-approved religious organizations will be allowed to give the meeting invocation. According to the resolution, the Borough president will determine the “authenticity” of religious organizations based on criteria used by the Internal Revenue Service for awarding 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.
Joshua Decker is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska. He says the Borough’s revised invocation policy may violate constitutional rights.
“It seems like Tuesday’s ordinance was designed to exclude religious minorities and atheists from offering invocations and this is constitutionally suspect. Once government invites prayer into the public sphere, it must be open to everyone,” Decker said.
The new invocation policy will go into effect immediately. The next Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting will be held on Oct. 25.