The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday voted to continue its current policy on the holding of invocations before its meetings. The only two dissenting votes came from southern peninsula representatives.
The assembly overwhelmingly voted down an ordinance which would have repealed the borough’s invocation policy. The final vote was seven to two against with only the two representatives from Homer and the southern peninsula in favor.
Before the meeting began, hundreds of comments were submitted to the assembly online. Those were split with many supporting keeping the invocation policy.
The assembly’s final decision came at the tail end of a four-hour meeting after dozens and dozens of comments from the public in attendance, the majority of which was in line with those two assembly members.
“When reading the written testimony and reading from the people that are really in support of the invocation, their reasoning for wanting us to continue with that invocation was a right that they felt that they had and all that did for me was make it more important to me that we represent people so that everyone can give the invocation," said Assembly President Kelly Cooper, who cast one of the two votes in favor of repeal. “It’s not about whose god is right and who your god is, in my opinion. It’s about every single one of us having the same rights. And, if I have a right, I’m not taking away your right. I’m not reducing your right. So, for me, when I look at how I will vote, I can’t support the existing policy that’s in place.”
As the policy currently stands, only individuals or religious organizations on a pre-approved list may give the invocation.
“I also can’t support a policy that we have put in place, that we have legislated to exclude one person or one group. We have created a policy to exclude one group and inadvertently excluded many," Cooper said.
Willy Dunne, who represents the southern Kenai Peninsula, was the assembly member who introduced the most recent ordinance and who cast the only other vote alongside Cooper in favor of it.
“I believe that we adopted a policy that is discriminatory in nature," Dunne said. "It was adopted to exclude certain individuals from speaking before the assembly.”
The borough assembly’s informal invocation policy had been based on an open, first-come, first-serve basis until the more restrictive, and what some argue unconstitutional, policy was approved in October.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska filed a lawsuit at the end of last year over the invocation policy, claiming it violates constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.
“You know, I was elected to make difficult decisions and spend the borough taxpayers’ money wisely. It just really, really, really bothers me to be spending borough taxpayers’ money on this lawsuit," said Dunne. "You know, the only things that would end with the passage of this ordinance are one, government-sponsored prayer and the other thing that would end is restrictions on who can express their views, which we have under the current policy.”
This invocation debate has caught the attention of players nationwide, some of whom were involved in a similar controversy that spawned the supreme court case, Town of Greece v. Galloway in 2013 and 2014.
As KBBI previously reported, the town board of Greece, New York had prefaced its meetings with a moment of silence which was replaced by a prayer in 1999.
Plaintiffs in the case argued Greece’s invocation policy violated the Establishment Clause and gave preferential treatment to Christianity. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately sided with the town, setting a legal precedent for public meeting invocations.
The same Christian legal organization that represented the town of Greece is now representing the Kenai Peninsula Borough pro bono. They are called the Alliance Defending Freedom and they have been labeled an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“It’s frustrating to be put in the position of [being] in a lawsuit," said Dunne. "We’re actually pawns in a national debate. We’ve got two national groups, well-funded, [with] millions and millions of dollars on either side and they saw this opportunity for a national debate to fight it out. As one of our legal friends from the borough testified, we took the bait."
Both Dunne and Cooper said they were dismayed that they couldn’t always tell where comments were coming from, thanks to outside interest in the policy.
“It’s hard to determine how many of those emails were actually from borough residents since there were calls to action from large groups outside of the borough that had links for people to send emails to borough assembly members," he said. "So, that’s a little troubling and I’m hoping to have some discussions about how we can make some modifications to our comment system.”
One potential idea would be to require a borough address accompany a comment to track back to a local resident.
Cooper said she plans to hold an assembly work session on the invocation on April 4 to review the current policy and come up with a new set of recommendations.
So, despite being in the voting minority on this most recent ordinance involving the invocation, both southern peninsula representatives say they will continue to work towards a more unifying solution.