Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion
A lawsuit between Kenai Peninsula Borough and the American Civil Liberties Union is finally over after the assembly approved on Tuesday appropriations of $70,400 to pay toward the balance of ACLU-Alaska’s legal fees. The borough has now spent $120,400 defending the Hunt et al. lawsuit, and at least $134,000 in legal and other fees related to the invocation policy, according to Homer News.
The borough received a bill of $80,000 in attorneys’ fees after the borough failed to defend its former invocation policy.
At Tuesday’s borough assembly meeting, Greg Andersen of Kenai spoke to the assembly in his public comment, saying that the invocation saga was finally over.
“A bill has been received for ACLU’s lawyer fees and the invocation saga can finally be closed,” Andersen said. “Over $165,000 in taxpayer money was spent and countless hours wasted.”
Andersen said he hoped the assembly would learn from the litigation experience.
George Pierce of Kasilof commended the assembly’s effort to fight for the former invocation policy.
“I don’t feel that it’s a waste of money to stand up for God,” Pierce said during public comment. “Evidently, people do, but I don’t… I’d be proud to give my tax money to the invocations.”
The former invocation policy was challenged after Lance Hunt, an atheist, Iris Fontana, a member of the Satanic Temple, and Elise Boyer, a member of Homer’s Jewish community, were denied the chance to provide an invocation because they did not belong to an official organization with an established presence on the peninsula, which was a requirement of the former policy.
ACLU-Alaska helped the plaintiffs file a suit against the borough, citing that the invocation policy violated the establishment clause, free speech clause and equal protection clause of the Alaska Constitution. In October 2018, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Andrew Peterson ruled that the former policy violated the state’s establishment clause, which bans the government from establishing an official religion or favoring religious beliefs.
In January 2017, the assembly appropriated $50,000 to defend the former policy. According to the Homer News, the borough entered into a contract with the Alliance Defending Freedom — A Scottsdale, Arizona, based religious rights organization — to defend themselves in the Hunt et al. lawsuit.
The borough narrowly voted to not appeal the court ruling, and a new inclusive policy was established late last year, which allows anyone to provide invocations before borough meetings. This year, invocations have been offered from a variety of people, including a Wiccan who invoked ancestors, and a yoga teacher who led the assembly through a series of breathing exercises.