Kenai assemblyman drops proposed ordinance to remove prayer from meetings

An ordinance that would have removed the invocation, or prayer, from the start of Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meetings proved to be such a hot topic that it was dropped before even being officially taken up.

Assembly President Blaine Gilman said he proposed the ordinance in response to recent complaints from members of the public that prayer as part of a public meeting was inappropriate. And also that the invocation, as practiced, seemed exclusionary to non-Judeo-Christian faiths, since that’s all that is represented.

Gilman, who represents Kenai, said his answer was to open the invocation up to anyone interested.

“I think the direction to go is to be broad-based, respectful of all faiths, and it’s first come, first served. And if there’s Muslims in this community who want to give an invocation, if there are people who are from Frontier Freethinkers, if there’s a Hindu person who wants to give an invocation, we should be open to that,” Gilman said.

Not everyone agreed with that idea, though, and the ordinance drew vehement opposition during public testimony, including from Joan Corr, who lives near Soldotna.

“I wouldn’t want a Muslim here. This country was not founded under Allah. It was founded under lord God almighty Jesus Christ, and so if I want to worship Allah and force that on everybody, I can just go back over to the (Middle East), but this country was founded under God,” Corr said.

The measure was up for introduction at the June 21 meeting. Local Christians spoke out to keep the prayer going.

“Our religious freedom has enabled us to express, not repress, our core religious beliefs,” said Dr. Keith Hamilton, of Soldotna. “… Alaskans in this borough are given the privilege of seeking the help of God, or some people would call a higher power, as we deliberate what is best for us all.”

Hamilton pointed out that the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that an invocation prayer in a public governmental meeting is constitutional.

Alan Humphries, the pastor of Soldotna Bible Chapel, said he believes that people have a universal need for prayer.

“One of the most hilarious things for me is the most atheistic, liberal, gun-hating American, the first thing when someone breaks (into) their house, the first thing they do is call somebody with a gun, and the second thing they do is pray to God they get there quick enough. Everybody prays. To say we don’t need prayer and we don’t believe in God is an illusion,” Humphries said.

He suggested that the assembly codify a definition of invocation as one invoking a deity that seeks to support the assembly, not do it harm, giving leverage to exclude Satanists, for example.

Albert Weeks, a former military chaplain and pastor of First Baptist Church in Kenai, suggested only allowing invocations from those who are authorized by a larger, recognized organization.

“Yes, open it up to everybody, but they need to be recognized members that are duly ordained by their organization that is vetted in this group,” Weeks said.

Homer Assembly Member Kelly Cooper said the assembly should try to be more inclusive.

“It appears to me — based on the way our language is — that we shouldn’t look how we can narrow that definition and exclude groups, we should be looking at how we can broaden that language,” Cooper said.

South Peninsula Assembly Member Willy Dunne argued for the introduction of the ordinance to allow an official public hearing on the matter.

“I know people have very strong feelings about this and I would urge my fellow assembly member to at least vote for introduction and that gives a chance for more discussion and more public input. We’ve heard from a very small cross-section of the Kenai Peninsula residents tonight,” Dunne said.

He noted that an invocation is not a universal practice. The Homer City Council no longer does one, he said. Neither does the Kenai, Soldotna or Seward city councils.

After spending more than a half-hour on the topic, the assembly voted four to four on introducing the ordinance, meaning it failed.

Statewide, the Kodiak, North Slope, Northwest Arctic and Wrangell borough assemblies incorporate an opening prayer in their meetings, and the Fairbanks North-Star Borough has what it calls a “non-sectarian” invocation. None of the other 13 other borough assemblies in the state open their meetings with a prayer.

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