The ACLU of Alaska filed a lawsuit Dec. 14 against the Kenai Peninsula Borough on behalf of two plaintiffs who wish to use time set aside for opening prayers at assembly meetings to voice support for atheistic ideologies and celebrate Satan.
Lance Hunt and Iris Fontana are challenging the assembly’s policy on who may offer invocations at the beginning of its public meetings.
Hunt and Fontana each gave separate invocations this summer, during a period when the assembly allowed invocations on a first-come, first-served basis.
Hunt, an atheist, filled the July 26 prayer slot at the meeting. Fontana, a member of the atheistic Satanic Temple gave an invocation at the Aug. 9 meeting.
By her own admission she was not praying to Satan or asking for his wisdom. As a member of the Satanic Temple she does not actually believe in a real being named Satan, nor does she believe in any supernatural reality at all. According to the Satanic Temple website the group does “not promote a belief in a personal Satan. To embrace the name Satan is to embrace rational inquiry removed from supernaturalism and archaic tradition-based superstitions. The Satanist should actively work to hone critical thinking and exercise reasonable agnosticism in all things.”
Fontana’s “prayer” falls in line with the Satanic Temple’s recent initiatives to remove religion from the public square. Over the past several years the Satanic Temple has launched efforts to erect satanic monuments on public grounds next to religious monuments; and it is currently pushing for satanic student clubs in public schools, alongside student-led prayer groups and Bible studies. These acts often shock local communities into reevaluating their long-standing practices of making public institutions and facilities open to people who hold religious views.
In response to Hunt’s atheistic statement and Fontana’s satanic prayer, the Assembly adopted a policy that clearly defines who may publicly solemnize its meetings. The restrictions limit prayers to members of religious associations that are established in and regularly meet in the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
By his own admission, Hunt does not belong to any religious association, while Fontana is associated with the Satanic Temple, which has no formal presence in Kenai.
Prayers to open public meetings are not new in America. In 1774 the First Continental Congress had paid chaplains for this purpose. Today federal, state and local governments around the nation regularly open meetings with prayer. The Kenai Assembly was following a long-held American tradition of recognizing that politics should be guided and grounded in a religious understanding of the human being.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such prayers, freely offered by members of the community, are fine so long as they are not “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.”
The ACLU, however, took issue with the borough’s policy to reserve invocations for representatives from established local religious congregations, rather than leaving the allotted prayer time open to any group, even those hostile to religious belief.