The Freedom From Religion Foundation is demanding that an Alaska borough rescind its new policy of chaplain-delivered prayer in disregard of FFRF’s constitutionally sound advice.
For the past several years, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly had allowed citizens to volunteer to deliver the opening invocation, a practice which allowed a variety of religious views to be represented. At its Nov. 7 meeting, however, the assembly voted to alter its invocation policy to only allow invocations from official borough-approved chaplains in an attempt to prevent Satanists, the nonreligious and members of other minority religions from equal representation and respect at meetings.
“Members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday unanimously approved changes to the way invocations are given before the body’s regular meeting,” reports the local paper. “Effective Jan. 1, 2024, assembly invocations will be delivered exclusively by volunteer chaplains serving the borough’s fire and emergency medical service areas, as designated by the president of the Borough Assembly.”
FFRF had written to the assembly shortly before the meeting to request that it either retain its current policy or cease including time for prayer at meetings completely.
“The borough received a three-page letter opposing the resolution on Nov. 3 from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a stated goal of promoting the separation of church and state and to educate the public about nontheism,” says the story in the Kenai Peninsula Clarion. “In the letter, that group said limiting who can give invocations to volunteer chaplains for borough service organizations, the assembly and the mayor would ‘ensure the borough has control over who delivers … the invocations and which religious views are allowed to be represented.’”
The assembly ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion by opening its meetings with prayer, FFRF emphasized in its letter. Citizens, including Kenai Borough’s nonreligious citizens, are compelled to come before it on important civic matters. Prayers exclude nonreligious residents, who currently make up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification. It is coercive and intimidating for these citizens to come to a public meeting and be required to either make a public showing of their nonbelief or show deference to a religious sentiment they do not believe in, but which their Borough Assembly members clearly do.
Invocation policies crafted to exclude certain beliefs or the nonreligious violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF underscored.
“In Pelphrey v. Cobb County, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a county commission violated the Establishment Clause by removing Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons from a list that it used to select invocation-speakers,” FFRF attorney Chris Line wrote to Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly President Brent Johnson. “And in Williamson v. Brevard County, the 11th Circuit ruled that a county commission violated the Establishment Clause by discriminating in favor of mainstream, monotheistic religions in its invocation practice. The court emphasized that ‘local governments violate the Constitution if they organize and conduct their prayers in a way that discriminates against other religious beliefs.’ After the case returned to the district court, the defendant county agreed to a settlement that prohibited it from continuing its discriminatory practices and required it to pay $490,000.”
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly needs to belatedly follow FFRF’s advice by concentrating on civic matters and reversing the practice of official prayer. FFRF is also making an open records request for all records related to the newly proposed invocation policy.
“The notion of officially approved chaplains is dismayingly exclusionary,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Anyone who is not a Christian is bound to feel out of place at assembly meetings from now on. Does the assembly really need to pray over liquor licenses, sewers and variances?”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members across the country, including in Alaska. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.