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OPINION: Costly, controversial borough invocation needs to end

March 19th, 2017 | Willy Dunne Print this article   Email this article  

Note: I wrote this Opinion Piece two weeks ago. At that time I had been instructed to submit anything I wanted to write to the Kenai Peninsula Borough for their approval and the approval of the Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF is the group providing the Borough's legal defense in the invocation case. A few days after submitting it to the Borough, I was informed by the Borough Attorney that ADF did not approve of what I had to say and that I should not publish it. On March 9, I filed a lawsuit asking the Alaska Superior Court to uphold my freedom of speech rights. Since I filed my lawsuit, the Borough has reversed course and now publicly states that I am free to publish my opinions without prior approval.

Willy Dunne represents District 9 on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. The views expressed here are his own.

Shortly after being elected to the KPB Assembly in 2015, a number of constituents asked if I would consider an ordinance to eliminate the religious invocations at the start of each Assembly meeting. Their reasons included (1) prayers are unnecessary to carry out the business of the Assembly and (2) past invocations have not represented the diversity of religious beliefs of borough residents. I took their requests under consideration as I began to investigate the history of the issue and seek out perspectives from the public and other Assembly members.

A few months later, I discussed the idea of eliminating invocations with then-assembly President Blaine Gilman. He asked me not to introduce an ordinance at that time so that we could come up with a policy to guide invocations. Unfortunately, the policy that was eventually adopted has resulted in borough residents being denied their requests to give an invocation (most recently a Jewish woman from Homer) as well as a lawsuit filed against the Borough by the American Civil Liberties Union. I have been adamantly opposed to this policy which restricts invocations to certain chaplains and representatives of approved religious associations.

Many folks who support the continuation of government-sponsored prayer speak of a long held tradition and to the fact that prayers are presented before other legislative bodies. While most municipalities around Alaska do not begin meetings with invocations, our state legislature does use the practice. However, the invocations given at the beginning of legislative floor sessions are available to be presented by any Alaskan and they are not always religious in nature. One legislator has played his cello as an invocation, another sang a song and played guitar. While chaplains and other religious people also do give invocations there, the Alaska State Legislature's policy requires opening prayers to include a statement acknowledging the variety of religious beliefs of Alaskans. Their policy also includes restrictions regarding prayers that invoke deities.

While I am opposed to the current borough policy, which denies the ability of all residents to express their beliefs, I am even more concerned about the staff time and tax dollars being spent to address the controversial policy. The $50,000 recently allocated to defend the lawsuit could instead be spent on educating our children or providing other essential services. The cost of this lawsuit will only continue to rise, and even though the borough has contracted for pro-bono legal defense, we are not shielded from future legal costs.

In recent years, the assembly has been struggling to adequately fund schools and other essential borough services. Last year we cut the budget for our landfills resulting in seasonal closures. More cuts to services are bound to be considered this year. How can we justify spending your money on a lawsuit defending religious policies while other services are being cut and while the state continues to shift costs to municipalities? I was elected to work together with the rest of the assembly to make difficult choices and spend your tax dollars wisely and effectively.

I believe it is time to move forward and let go of the arguments in favor of retaining religious invocations. Our current policy identifies invocations are given in order to "accommodate the spiritual needs of the public officials." Thus, invocations, while presented at a public meeting, are not intended for the general public, but only for the spiritual needs of assembly members and borough staff. While some public officials may feel that the invocations do meet their spiritual needs, others have indicated otherwise by seating themselves during an opening prayer while others remain standing, or by walking out of the assembly chambers until the invocation was finished.

Let's end the divisiveness, let's end the lawsuit, let's end the senseless waste of our hard earned tax dollars. Let's repeal the rules requiring an invocation.


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