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Borough invocation policy ruled unconstitutional

Kenai Peninsula Borough


In a decision handed down Tuesday, the court found that the borough’s 2016 rewrite of its policy allowing certain people to open assembly meetings with a blessing to be in violation of the Establishment Clause in the constitution.

Assembly member Willy Dunne says he was pleased with the ruling. Several of his constituents on the southern Peninsula had been denied an opportunity to offer an invocation because they didn’t belong to a recognized religious group.

“I was thinking that would be the case, and I’m happy to hear that the court has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. I believe that our policy is discriminatory and prevents some people from giving invocations while allowing other people to give them. I’m happy to see the situation is temporarily settled. We’ll see where we go from here.”

Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said he was ready to work with the legal department to draft new language. It will be up to the Assembly to approve it and decide whether an appeal is made.

“That decision will be, ultimately, up to you. And then you will also have the responsibility, it’s a court ruling at this point, and we will have to make some modifications to the existing policy. We’ll go through the legal department. We will follow the directives of the court in the interim and again, you’ll have an opportunity to decide whether you choose to appeal the ruling or not.”

Assembly member Dunne says he hopes this will give his colleagues an opportunity to think about more inclusive policies.

“We had people from three different belief backgrounds that sued the borough. I was unhappy that we kept the policy in place. I attempted several times to amend the policy or do away with invocations altogether. I was overridden by the assembly. The majority wanted to keep the policy. I would hope that the assembly and the borough and the people of the borough realize now that it is unconstitutional to discriminate against anyone because of their religious beliefs.”

The legal fight started after an invocation was given in 2016 by one of the plaintiffs, Iris Fontana, that ended with her saying ‘Hail Satan’. The Assembly then disallowed anyone from giving an invocation unless they were a member of a recognized congregation that holds regular meetings locally. The ACLU took up the case from there, and represented the plaintiffs in the superior court proceedings.

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