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Borough Assembly discusses path forward after invocation ruling

Courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula Borough
Kenai Peninsula Borough

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is still grappling with a Superior Court judge’s ruling on its current invocation policy. The ruling deemed that the borough’s policy allowing prayer before assembly meetings excluded minority faiths, therefore violating the state Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s invocation policy only allows leaders of recognized congregations that hold regular meetings in the borough to lead invocations. The assembly implemented the policy back in 2016 after a borough resident ended an invocation in the words “hail Satan.”

Borough Attorney Colette Thompson updated assembly members on their options for responding to the ruling during the Policies and Procedures Committee’s meeting Tuesday, most notably the question of whether to appeal the case.

“That’s up to the assembly to make that decision,” Thompson explained.

Thompson indicated that assembly member Dale Bagley intends to propose a change to the current policy and to pose the question of whether to appeal the case at a meeting in the near future.

It’s unclear when that may happen, and Bagley could not be reached for comment before deadline. Other assembly members could put forth their own proposals as well.

“I do intend to invite the attorney who represented us in this case here to give information to the assembly for that meeting,” Thompson said. “That may require executive session. I’m not sure, depends on where it goes.”

Assembly member Willy Dunne also questioned whether the borough needed to change the policy immediately.

“I guess I still have questions. It seems like we’re still in violation of the constitution by having this policy, that’s all,” Dunne added.

Thompson explained that the borough has stopped accepting invocation applications and she says the policy has been put on hold.

“The fact that it’s on the books and not being implemented to me is complying with the court order on an interim basis and not actively violating the constitution,” Thompson noted.

Assembly President Wayne Ogle also asked Thompson how much the current policy needs to change in order to comply with the judge’s order.

“One example would be to just delete the paragraph that requires people to be members of associations or chaplains and sign up in advance,” Thompson said. “It could basically be a first-come-first-serve invocation.”

Thompson also explained that the assembly could maintain the current application process, but open invocations to faiths that do not meet the current policy’s standards.

The assembly didn’t discuss either issue related to the invocation case during its regular meeting, but a handful of borough residents commented on the matter.

Alaska Christian College President Keith Hamilton asked the assembly to move forward with an appeal.

“Recently a judge has struck down our policy as it is in its current status,” Hamilton testified.  “Assembly leaders should not let others divert you from what is best for the borough in keeping this policy as is.”

However, others disagreed with the idea of the borough spending any more money on the case, and some like Ed Martin of Cooper Landing encouraged the assembly to accept the ruling.

“I believe that this assembly and many of us that are in this room need prayer,” he said. “Now, there are some in this room that may not welcome it. We as prayer givers should accept the fact that we have to have some tolerance.”

While it’s unclear exactly when the assembly will come to a consensus on how to change the current invocation policy, it will have to decide whether to appeal the case soon. The borough will have 30 days to decide once the judge in the case issues a final judgement, which finalizes the ruling.

The assembly’s next regular meeting is on Nov. 20.

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Aaron Bolton has moved on to a new position in Montana; he is no longer KBBI News Director. KBBI is currently seeking a News Director, and Kathleen Gustafson is filling in for the time being.
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