ACLU wins Kenai Peninsula Borough invocations lawsuit
After a challenge spanning two years, a Superior Court judge has ruled that the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly's invocation policy is unconstitutional.
This court case dates back to 2016 when the Assembly required that invocations at its meetings be delivered by individuals and religious organizations on a pre-approved list, after an invocation delivered by Iris Fontana.
"Let us embrace the Lucifer impulse to eat the tree of knowledge," Fontana said. "It is done, Hail Satan. Thank you."
Fontana's words stunned locals, according to Assembly member Willy Dunne.
"There were people who were very upset or concerned when a representative of the Satanic Temple gave an invocation of the words, 'Hail Satan,'" Dunne said. "Over a period of months, the Assembly eventually adopted a policy who could give an invocations."
Dunne, who has served on the Assembly for three years, said the issue had never come up before.
"We have a short line in borough (code) that says the borough Assembly meetings will start with a brief invocation," Dunne said. "However, that's not defined -- 'invocation' is not defined and 'brief' is not defined. So tradition was pastors coming in for two to or three minutes and giving an opening prayer. That's how that was interpreted for many years, but of course there are many religions in our borough, and people of many faiths and no faiths."
When the question came up, six Assembly members voted for the current policy. Dunne didn't agree with the decision.
"I tried to introduce an ordinance to do away with invocations; however, that failed to pass," Dunne said. "When the policy that we are currently operating (under) developed, I opposed that and I attempted to amend that to allow anyone to give an invocation. I thought the policy was discriminatory and unconstitutional."
Soon afterward, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska sued the borough, arguing the policy violated the state constitution's "establishment clause" barring government from supporting particular religions.
"Anytime we see government trying to pick winners and losers in areas that they are barred from being involved in, it gets our attention," said ACLU of Alaska spokesman Casey Reynolds.
Judge Andrew Peterson agreed, finding that the borough's policy excluded "minority faiths," and therefore is unconstitutional.
"What it means is that regardless of whatever your faith is, you can participate fully in government without having to worry about your faith being deemed second-class," said Reynolds
Assembly members were told about the ruling Tuesday night. They will be addressing it at their next meeting on Oct. 23.
At that meeting, the Assembly can opt to create a new invocation policy or get rid of the invocation altogether. Members might opt to appeal Peterson's ruling, but Dunne said he doesn't expect that to happen.
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