The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly revived its invocation policy during a reconsideration vote at its Tuesday meeting.
The assembly passed an amendment Nov. 22 deleting the entire policy it had passed in October. That policy set guidelines for who would be allowed to provide the prayer before the regular assembly meetings. However, at the end of the meeting, assembly member Blaine Gilman of Kenai filed for reconsideration, which brought the topic up again for discussion at the Tuesday meeting.
With assembly member Willy Dunne, who represents the southern Kenai Peninsula, absent, the eight members of the assembly split the vote on the amendment deleting the policy. When the vote is tied, a motion fails, so the amendment deleting
the policy failed, reverting the policy back to the one the assembly passed in October. The policy, as it stands, lays out a set of criteria for anyone wishing to give an invocation. They must be part of a religious group that meets regularly for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective or be a chaplain that serves fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals or other similar organizations.
The policy also is the one the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the borough over. The organization, which advocates for civil liberties, frequently through litigation, sent a letter to the borough Oct. 20 asking them to drop the invocation policy because it prevents people not part of a religious group or whose groups do not pass the criteria from participating.
Gilman, one of the original sponsors of the policy that passed in October, defended it as open to all religious groups, including atheistic and humanist groups. The goal was to prevent political groups from giving invocations, he said. Having a policy in writing will help keep it open if an assembly president who is less open to all religions should ever be elected, he said.
“A president could be up there who wasn’t so inclusive,” he said. “That’s not good policy for the assembly. Things need to be in writing. And we shouldn’t be afraid to have our policy in writing.”
Assembly President Kelly Cooper of Homer, a cosponsor on the amendment that would have changed the language to include groups that meet to share “an interest or belief that is very important to the attendees,” urged assembly members to support the amendment that deleted the entire policy. The original policy that the assembly enacted in October excluded individuals and groups that don’t fit the definition, she said.
“This policy would even exclude Jesus Christ from being able to give us an invocation,” she said. “I can’t reconcile how this exclusive policy serves the assembly or our residents.”
The assembly voted 4-4 to rescind the amendment, with Cooper, Gary Knopp, who represents the Kalifornsky area, Paul Fischer of Soldotna and assembly member Brandii Holmdahl of Seward voting to keep it. Knopp tried to ask for reconsideration at the end of the meeting, but assembly policy prevents an issue that has just been reconsidered from being immediately reconsidered again, regardless of the outcome.
Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said during his comments at the end of the meeting that he planned to bring forward a budget appropriation at the next meeting to transfer funds to the legal department because of expected legal challenges to the policy. It would not increase the budget, and if there are no challenges, the funding will lapse at the end of the fiscal year, he said.
“It’s not because I want to spend money on this issue,” he said. “It’s because as mayor and administrator of this borough, I have a responsibility and a duty to uphold, whether I agree with them or not, the ordinances and policies of the assembly. It’s not because I want to spend money on it, it’s because I believe we will see some challenges on it.”
Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.