Another court delivered a victory this week for those striving to make public meetings more inclusive to people of all religions and the nonreligious.

The Alaska Superior Court on Tuesday ruled that Kenai Peninsula Borough is violating the state constitution’s religious freedom protections by restricting the faith traditions from which residents may offer invocations during public meetings.

Three Kenai residents sued after the borough assembly adopted a policy of only allowing representatives of religious associations that are established and regularly meet in Kenai to offer invocations. Not only does the policy exclude the nonreligious and those who don’t belong to an organized religion, but given that Kenai is a borough of not quite 60,000 people, many faith traditions won’t have official associations that meet regularly there.

The evolution of and controversy over Kenai’s invocation policy provide a poignant lesson on how invocations during public meetings can sow discord and division at gatherings meant to bring communities together – and why governmental bodies would be wise to forgo invocations altogether, especially if they are unwilling to adopt a policy that permits invocations by nonbelievers and members of minority faiths.

Residents in 2016 requested that Kenai’s assembly stop having prayers at its public meetings. But counter-protests sank the resolution that would have ended the invocations and instead the Kenai assembly began allowing anyone from the community to offer invocations on a first-come, first-served basis.

Under that policy, residents Lance Hunt and Iris Fontana each delivered secular invocations that called on assembly members’ common humanity and urged them to use reason in their decisions. These invocations – particularly Iris’, which was prepared with assistance from the church-state separation organization The Satanic Temple – generated more controversy.

That’s when the assembly adopted the latest policy – that only members of recognized faith communities could offer invocations. That meant not only were Lance and Iris denied future opportunities to offer invocations, but so was everyone else who’s not a member of an organization that “regularly meet[s] for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.”

That left out Elise Boyer, who is Jewish, because Kenai doesn’t have an established Jewish temple. Elise, Iris and Lance all applied to give invocations under the new policy, and all three were denied. That’s why they challenged Kenai’s policy in court.

In his written opinion that Kenai’s policy violates the state constitution, Superior Court Judge Andrew Peterson said he relied in part on the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinions on legislative prayer.

“The goal behind legislative invocations and other ceremonial prayers is the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion,” he wrote. Kenai “has made clear the Resolution stemmed from intolerance for the controversial views expressed during two particular invocations … If [Kenai] is opening the invocation opportunity to all borough residents, they cannot then put in place requirements that in effect exclude minority faiths or beliefs.

“The Resolution … is not inclusive of every religious view or belief practiced by the residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough,” Peterson wrote. “Plaintiffs Hunt, Fontana, and Boyer are all examples of borough residents whose religious views are excluded and disfavored by the Resolution.”

Homer News reported that Kenai assembly members are reviewing the ruling and whether they will appeal. The newspaper reported that the current mayor, who was not in office when the invocation policy was created, said while campaigning last year that he thought the invocation policy was discriminatory.

I hope Kenai officials recognize that their current practice is dividing their community and opt for a more inclusive policy. In the last year, AU has noted several communities that are making their meetings more welcoming to people of all religions and the nonreligious – including El Paso, Texas; Woodbury, N.J.; Radford, Va.; and San Antonio (stay tuned for the November issue of our Church & State magazine for details on how AU’s chapter in San Antonio was involved).

And where elected officials are continuing to discriminate against religious minorities and nontheists, the courts are stepping in. In the last year in two cases brought by Americans United together with allies, federal courts have ruled unconstitutional the practices of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the Brevard County, Fla., Board of County Commissioners of refusing to let nontheists offer secular invocations during public meetings. Last year another federal court struck down a policy in Rowan County, N.C., that favored Christian invocations. And next week, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., will hear arguments on the U.S. House of Representatives’ chaplain’s decision to refuse to allow an atheist to offer a secular invocation.

Public meetings are vital government functions that should welcome all citizens to attend and participate. Invocation practices – especially those that only represent a majority faith and exclude religious minorities and nonbelievers from participating – can send the exact opposite message. Our elected officials should be working to ensure their meetings are welcoming to all.

(Photo: Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members pray during the invocation at the Oct. 9, 2018, public meeting. Credit: Screenshot from video of the meeting.)