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ACLU Sues Kenai Peninsula Borough Over Religious Invocation Policy

Photo courtesy of the ACLU of Alaska

The ACLU of Alaska is following through with its threat to sue the Kenai Peninsula Borough over its invocation policy.

In the lawsuit filed on Dec. 14 in Anchorage Superior Court, the ACLU alleges the policy currently in place violates constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.

At its Anchorage headquarters, the ACLU of Alaska held a press conference to announce the lawsuit.

Eric Glatt is a staff attorney for the ACLU. He says the Borough Assembly’s invocation policy is not defensible under the U.S. Constitution.

“Legislative invocations do have a long, storied history in America, but the kind of policy that the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has implemented is not of a kind that the Supreme Court has upheld as being constitutionally permissible,” said Glatt.

In the filing, the ACLU alleges the invocation policy violates four constitutional rights: the guarantee of separation of church and state, freedom of speech, freedom of association and equal protection under the law. They are seeking a court ruling that the policy is unconstitutional under state and federal law.

The controversy began this summer when Iris Fontana, a 27-year-old member of the Satanic Temple and one of two plaintiffs in the case, gave an invocation ending with the words “Hail Satan.”

In response, the Borough Assembly passed a resolution on Oct. 11, restricting the invocation to individuals and religious organizations on a pre-approved list.

The other plaintiff in the case, Lance Hunt, is an atheist who gave an invocation before the Assembly this past July. Under the current policy, he is barred from giving future invocations.

“I’m fighting for the rights of everybody in the Borough to participate in all manners and facets of the Assembly in which the public is allowed,” said Hunt.

The ACLU of Alaska has openly criticized the invocation policy since it was first instituted and cites a 2014 supreme court ruling as a legal precedent. Joshua Decker is the Executive Director of the ACLU of Alaska.

“This is why the ACLU exists; it’s to take on important constitutional cases that really affect the day-to-day lives of Alaskans,” said Decker.

The deeply-divided Borough Assembly has attempted to revise or rescind the controversial invocation policy multiple times. Those attempts have failed.

Assembly Member Stan Welles has been among those who have staunchly defended the policy.

“I accept the challenge to support the Constitution. The Supreme Court has never promulgated a law separating church and state,” said Welles.

In preparation for a lawsuit, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre proposed an ordinance on Nov. 22 that would have appropriated $75,000 to defend the invocation policy in court.  That ordinance was later withdrawn.

Members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, along with the Borough Clerk and Borough Attorney, were not available for comment on the lawsuit.

The Borough Assembly now has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.

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