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Confronting Freedom of Religion at the Local Level

The First Amendment to the Constitution begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…" and goes on about freedom of speech, the press, and assembly. How does that translate to state and smaller governments? The Kenai Peninsula Borough is an area, like a county, south of Anchorage, Alaska. the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is its governing body. In June, one member of the Assembly proposed a new rule that would do away with a prayer before opening Assembly meetings, but it wasn't passed due to lack of interest. So they opened up the invocation to anyone who wanted to give it on a first-come, first-served basis. In August, Satanic Temple member Iris Fontana opened the meeting with a prayer that invoked Satan. At another meeting, an atheist spoke for the invocation. 

In October, the Assembly changed the process of selecting who gives the invocation.

As the new resolution spells out, those eligible to recite an invocation include religious associations "with an established presence in the Kenai Peninsula Borough that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective, or chaplains who may serve one or more of the fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals, or other similar organizations in the borough."

In November, the rules were changed again to re-open the invocation to anyone who wanted to give it. That happened after they started thinking about possible lawsuits.

An ordinance that would have appropriated $75,000 in borough money to fight future court battles over the religious rule was withdrawn as a result of the Assembly approving the amendment. Decker said in the past that while the ACLU hopes not to sue, it wouldn't rule it out, "if that's what upholding the Constitution takes."

However, the reversion to the open rules has not yet taken effect, so the story is not over. The simplest thing would be to do away completely with an invocation before Assembly meetings. There's nothing wrong with a good "I call this meeting to order." -via a comment at Metafilter


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