January 2019 Church & State - January 2019

Alaska Court Strikes Down City’s Policy On Meeting Invocations

  Rob Boston

The Alaska Superior Court ruled in October that Kenai Peninsula Borough violated the religious-freedom protections of the Alaska Constitution 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 allowing only representatives of religious associations that are established and regularly meet in Kenai to offer invocations. The residents, who were backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, argued that the policy excludes the nonreligious as well as anyone who belongs to an organized religion that doesn’t happen to have an official presence in that city of 55,000.

The controversy goes back to 2016 when residents requested that Kenai’s assembly stop sponsoring 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.

In response, the assembly adopted a policy saying that only members of recognized faith communities could offer invocations. That policy excluded Elise Boyer, who is Jewish because Kenai doesn’t have an established Jewish temple. After Hunt, Fontana and Boyer applied to give invocations under the new policy and were denied, they went to court.

In his opinion, Superior Court Judge Andrew Peterson said he relied in part on the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinions on legislative prayer.

“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 to determine whether they will appeal. (Hunt v. Kenai Peninsula Borough)

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