Wrangell changes prayer policy for Assembly meetings

The Borough of Wrangell is officially removing prayer from its Assembly meetings. But the Assembly has a compromise for those wanting to give invocations in city chambers.

Prayer has been a part of every Assembly meeting in Wrangell. Someone in the community, most often of a Christian faith, begins the public meeting with an invocation.

But the borough voted to remove that standing procedure, after a state Superior Court judge said the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s prayer policy was unconstitutional.

Wrangell’s attorney recommended this change, saying the Kenai ruling would create precedent for all Alaska communities.

But Borough Manager Lisa Von Bargen believes a large portion of the community wants to maintain the prayer. So she recommended anyone wanting to say a prayer before the meeting sign up to be heard for public comment.

That removes the onus from the Assembly and city staff, and puts it strictly on the will of the community.

“Anyone has the ability to give an invocation,” Von Bargen says. “And we don’t want to limit that.”

Previously the borough clerk would look for any religious folks in town to fill in for the prayer. Clerk Kim Lane said that could be misconstrued and put the borough in a compromising position.

“One could say I was being selective, and I don’t think that’s a good place for the city to be,” Lane says.

Kenai’s prayer policy went against separation of church and state. But Kenai didn’t come under fire until it tried to limit who could and could not pray.

In 2016, some Kenai residents came to say a prayer ending with the salute “Hail Satan.” In response, the Kenai Assembly approved a new policy saying only congregations could say a prayer. Then another resident started his own congregation in honor of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, with the help of some of those locals, sued the Kenai Borough for discriminating against these nontraditional devotees.

The Wrangell Assembly didn’t want to suffer the same litigious fate: The five present members voted unanimously to remove the invocation.

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