SOLDOTNA — Rain began to fall just before a huddled group of Catholic Church members began praying on a sidewalk in Soldotna.
Some held rosaries or icons; one held a wooden cross more than five feet tall. They prayed in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Redoubt Avenue, objecting to abortion services offered there.
A group of about 10 people stood around them with signs, some silent, some shouting protest phrases like, “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!” A black car sped by on Redoubt Avenue, honking loudly and making a vulgar gesture at the praying church members, the driver shouting, “(Expletive) Jesus Christ!”
Elizabeth Grace, who held one of the counter-protest signs, frowned. “That’s not OK,” she said.
After the church group finished, they began walking north toward the Kenai Peninsula Borough Administration Building, which stands on the next block.
While members of the Catholic Church, which teaches against abortion and the use of birth control, regularly pray outside Planned Parenthood clinics across the country, the prayer outside the borough administration building came in response to a Satanic invocation offered before the borough assembly at its Aug. 9 meeting. The invocation set off a furor of responses in the community, both supportive and censuring the decision.
Reaction among attendees at the borough assembly meeting was minimal. Assembly member Brent Johnson left the room and returned after the invocation was given. A few members of the audience and borough staff sat down during the invocation. A man filmed the invocation being given, but after it was finished, the assembly carried on its business as usual.
In June, Assembly President Blaine Gilman brought forward an ordinance that would have removed invocations from the assembly agenda. Multiple pastors and community members commented on it, asking the assembly to strike it down before introduction. The assembly did so, saying that instead of removing prayer, the process should be more open to prayers from all religions.
Assembly member Dale Bagley said he did not appreciate that both the Satanic invocation offered at the Aug. 9 meeting and the atheistic invocation given at the July 26 meeting seemed to be political statements speaking to issue of prayer in government meetings.
In his comments at the end of the Aug. 9 meeting, Gilman said discussion over the assembly’s invocation has come up several times over the years and he would expect it to die down.
Iris Fontana, who offered the Satanic invocation, said she wanted to see equality in the invocations before the borough assembly. Most of the past invocations have been offered by Christian pastors. A member of the Temple of Satan, Fontana said she initially asked to offer the invocation around May.
“We just wanted to see it be equal,” Fontana said. “I’d be fine with (a moment of silence) too.”
Some spoke in favor of removing prayer as a matter of the separation of church and state at the June 21 assembly meeting. Carrie Henson, head of the local secularist organization Last Frontier Freethinkers, testified to the borough assembly that she would prefer there be no prayer before its meetings.
At the protest Tuesday, she said she wants the community to understand there are people in the borough who may not be comfortable with prayers before government meetings, Christian or otherwise. She and others in the group gathered to stage a counter-protest when they found out on Monday about the church members’ plans to pray near the Planned Parenthood clinic and the borough building.
“We wanted people to understand there’s another perspective,” Henson said.
Grace, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Church of Latter-Day Saints, also chose to take part in the counter-protest. She said the Satanic prayer at the borough assembly bothered her, but the inclusion of Planned Parenthood also bothered her because the community needs women’s health resources.
“Planned Parenthood is about women’s health,” Grace said. “They’re providing services to people who need it. We need that.”
Rhonda Scott, who helped organize the counter-protest, called Planned Parenthood “a necessity” in the community. The national organization provides women’s health services such as cancer screening, urinary tract infection screening and sexually transmitted disease screening as well as abortion and birth control services.
“It’s a place where you can go and get services without feeling judged, and we need that here, especially in this community,” Scott said.
Although she held a sign that read “Exorcising belongs in the gym, not at Planned Parenthood,” she said she chose not to shout protest phrases during the Catholic church members’ prayers as a sign of respect.
Carolyn Bosela, one of the church members, stood near the center of the group outside Planned Parenthood holding a painted icon and a rosary. She said the group wasn’t a protest.
“We’re just coming here to pray,” Bosela said.
Johnson plans to introduce an ordinance at the borough assembly’s Aug. 23 meeting to transition the invocation to a moment of silence. If introduced, the ordinance would come up for public hearing at the Sept. 20 meeting. Although Johnson said he has supported the invocation in the past, there has been divisiveness about the prayers and the moment of silence would be a good middle ground.
“I think it’s a great way for everybody who wants to pray, to pray,” Johnson said.
Bagley said he also plans to propose a resolution to the borough assembly at the Sept. 20 meeting that would create guidelines for who can offer the prayer. He said he would like the guidelines to state that anyone seeking to offer an invocation must be a member of a recognized religion. The borough’s legal department is reviewing his idea because the borough cannot discriminate on the basis of religion, he said.
“I really want it to be members of groups,” Bagley said. “It doesn’t have to be a pastor, but it needs to be a group in the area and not just somebody off the street.”
Assembly member Brandii Holmdahl also plans to reintroduce the ordinance to remove invocations from the agenda at the next meeting. Gilman originally sponsored the ordinance but planned to withdraw the ordinance. Holmdahl and several others assembly members picked up the sponsorship when he withdrew his. Though the ordinance was voted down before introduction in the last discussion, Holmdahl said she thought it would be the best solution. The borough cannot discriminate on the basis of religion and the moment of silence takes up time — those who feel they need to pray can do so before the meeting begins, Holmdahl said. The debate over the invocation is taking up both assembly and borough staff time unnecessarily, she said.
“I do think that removing it is the best solution,” Holmdahl said. “For me, a moment of silence is a little uncomfortable and adds more time to what we’re doing there. I think if people need to do that, they can do that on their own. … I don’t believe trying to define what can and can’t be said works, because everybody (has the same rights).”
• Peninsula Clarion reporter Elizabeth Earl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.