Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has followed a long-standing tradition of hearing an invocation before each of its public meetings. The practice has been part of public proceedings since the borough was formed in 1964.
That invocation may now be a relic of a bygone era, now that Satan has gotten in the game. A public hearing on whether it should continue will be held next month.
The matter came to a head last summer, when the Assembly allowed an atheist and a Satanist to give invocations in July and August.
Those invocations caused a stir across the Kenai Peninsula as the public expressed shock at seeing its Assembly members standing with bowed heads while the power of Satan was being invoked. The Assembly members themselves didn’t much enjoy it, either. The spectacle made national news.
The borough code states that invocation givers are chosen on a first-come, first-served invocation. The atheist and the Satanist simply had gotten in line.
But with Satanists now in the mix with pastors, rabbis and imams, the assembly faced a choice — either eliminate the invocation or limit it to representatives from established religions that meet regularly in the borough.
They chose the latter option, and quickly drew a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union Alaska chapter.
Now, faced with a constitutional lawsuit, the assembly is considering an ordinance, introduced last week, that would ditch the moment of prayer. Introduced by Assembly member Willy Dunn, it’s the same ordinance that never made it to a vote when introduced twice in 2016.
ACLU DRIVING BOROUGH ACTION
In mid-December, the ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of two Kenai Borough residents, Lance Hunt and Iris Fontana, who challenged what they say is the Assembly’s unconstitutional restriction on who may offer invocations at public meetings.
Hunt is the atheist who gave the invocation at the July 26 meeting, and Fontana read an invocation from The Satanic Temple before the Aug. 9 meeting, concluding her reading with a “Hail, Satan.”
“I’ve lived on the Kenai since 1994,” said Hunt in a statement released by the ACLU. “I’m involved in my community and I try to make the Kenai a better place for my neighbors. My July invocation called on the members of the Borough Assembly to be good to everyone, to recognize our common humanity, and to have empathy for our neighbors. Just because I don’t belong to a religious association, I don’t understand why the Assembly felt the need to prevent me from offering a similar invocation in the future.”
Fontana identified herself as a psychology and anthropology major at Kenai Peninsula College. “In August, I tried to inspire the Assembly members to use our common, innate human gifts of logic and reason as they deliberate on what’s best for me and my neighbors; last month, they told me that I could not give another invocation.”
Eric Glatt, staff attorney at the ACLU of Alaska, said the Assembly violated the Constitution by limiting the invocation to groups that meet in the borough.
“Rather than picking invocation speakers in a fair and neutral manner, such as first-come, first-served, the Borough has decreed that some speakers are acceptable and others—like our clients Lance and Iris—are not. This violates the Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and not favoring one religious practice over another.”
A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for the Assembly’s March 21 meeting.
Those familiar with the composition of the Assembly say that the mood has shifted to eliminating the invocation altogether, rather than fight it out in court.
The Satanic Temple has a national initiative to ban public prayer and Christian symbols from official meetings and public property. It has forced the debate by staging similar Satanic invocations in places like Phoenix, Arizona and Pensacola, Florida.
The group is pushing to open Satanic clubs in public schools as a method of shutting down Christian clubs. In Arkansas, the group is working to install a statue of a demon named Baphomet on the Capitol grounds near an existing monument to the Ten Commandments. The same effort is being attempted in Oklahoma.
The stated mission statement of The Satanic Temple is to “facilitate and mobilize the communication of politically aware Satanists, secularists, and advocates for individual liberty.” The group also puts an emphasis on abortion rights.