Earlier this year, members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly (Alaska) were thinking about getting rid of invocations at meetings, but they kept them and said anyone who wanted to give one could do so.
By August, a member of The Satanic Temple was delivering an invocation with the line, “That which will not bend must break and that which can be destroyed by truth should never be spared its demise. It is done. Hail Satan.”
If you’re an Assembly member, and that doesn’t sit well with you, what do you do? The answer, apparently, is to change the rules and break the law.
This week, members voted 6-3 to keep the invocations in place, while requiring speakers to be part of an “Assembly-approved religious association.”
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.”
That effectively shuts out groups that don’t meet on a regular basis — no atheists, no Satanists, no smaller religious groups that don’t have money for a building or rental space, etc. From now on, it’s virtually all Christian invocations, all the time.
Iris Fontana, the woman who gave the satanic invocation, also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting in opposition of the resolution.
“A strict policy that focuses on who’s allowed to give an invocation rather than the content of the invocation itself is a blatant attempt at discrimination against the people who do not feel welcome in any of the current religious associations” that fall under the Assembly’s criteria, she said.
There’s no word about a lawsuit yet, but this is clearly an Establishment Clause violation. It changes the rules to make sure certain groups have to overcome an unreasonable obstacle (meeting regularly in person) before being allowed to deliver an invocation. Not all groups congregate in person; they still deserve the opportunity to deliver an invocation at the beginning of local government meetings.
In response to the decision, Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves told me this:
It is the most basic principle of public service that American officials represent the entirety of their constituency, not their own personal interests or tribal affiliations.
Increasingly, we find that this principle is ignored, undermined, or completely unknown to the unqualified and incompetent officials. As we attempt to assert plurality by way of offering invocations in public forums that have been opened to prayer, we consistently expose the lie that such invocation policies are to the benefit of each and every form of belief or non-belief, with discrimination or exclusive privilege towards none.
Lame attempts to give discriminatory policies an officious air by way of hastily introduced bureaucratic measures have become the norm. Public hearings addressing the outrage of Satanic invocations inevitably find sputtering red-faced citizens waving dollar bills, pointing to the words “In God We Trust,” exasperatingly testifying that these words give exclusive national rights to Christians.
The damage to public education is clear. The damage to our very sense of democracy is evident every time reasonable people yield to yet another small encroachment over the Church-State divide. I hope our work serves illustrate to some how real and how vital this battle is.