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Borough Assembly settles invocation issue

Courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula Borough
Kenai Peninsula Borough

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly settled a multi-year dispute over its invocation policy Tuesday. Assembly members declined to mount a court battle over the borough’s former, more restrictive policy, and the legislative body replaced that policy with more inclusive language.

A majority of assembly members decided it would be a financial gamble to appeal the roughly two-year long court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska over its invocation policy. The judge in the case found that the borough’s policy violated the Alaska Constitution.

The policy, which dictated that only leaders of recognized religious groups could lead invocations, was put in place in 2016 shortly after a Satanic Temple member ended an invocation with the words “Hail Satan.”

Several borough residents like Greg Anderson of Kenai agreed the court challenge should end.  

“I work very hard in order to pay my property taxes. Gambling on the unknown with these tax dollars is unacceptable,” he said. “These tax dollars need to be spent on services for the borough. It is time to move on.”

According to the borough, the latest dollar amount spent on attorney fees and staff time stands at roughly $41,000. The borough also spent roughly the same amount on an additional 2017 court battle related to the invocation issue. The borough lost that case.

The overall cost to the borough could jump however. The ACLU plans to request that the borough pay for its attorney fees, which it estimates could total up to $100,000.

Despite the majority of in-person testimony urging members not to appeal the case, two assembly members wanted to take the battle to the Alaska Supreme Court.

“Everyone that is here and has made their concerns known, I would like you to know that there are other people in the borough, and I’m sure you understand that, that also would see this go a different direction,” Assembly member Norm Blakely said.

The assembly also approved a new policy opening invocations to all borough residents. When it came time to discuss the policy, Blakely argued that a “chaplain” should lead invocations.

The idea could limit which faiths are represented at assembly meetings, as there are no synagogues or mosques on the Kenai Peninsula. Such a policy could stack the deck in favor of Christian leaders and is the very reason the borough’s former policy was deemed unconstitutional. Whether such a policy would lead to another legal challenge is unknown.

Assembly member Kelly Cooper, who crafted the new policy, pushed back against Blakely’s idea.

“My first choice would be to have a moment of silence, but I represent all the residents of the borough,” she explained. “If we do a chaplain, then what we’re doing is we’re saying those of you that want a moment of silence or those of you that don’t believe the same way as the majority of the others do not count.”

Others such as Assembly President Wayne Ogle found Cooper’s resolution to be a compromise.

“I reluctantly voted against the appeal. I believe as Ms. Cooper stated, I think very well that this is a good compromise,” he said. “This is kind of peeling back our process that we had in place, 2016-056, and peeled back a lot of the restrictions on it.”

It’s unclear whether there may be attempts to modify the new policy or whether new proposals could come forward, but for the moment, the roughly two-and-a-half year long controversy has come to an end.

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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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