Praying Out Loud Forbidden at Senior Citizens Center

By:  Jack Kenny
05/10/2010
       

PrayerChances are the folks frequenting the Ed Young Senior Citizens Center in Port Wentworth, Georgia never imagined they would see the day when they would be told they were violating the Constitution by saying grace before meals. But that’s what happened last Thursday. Because the meals are provided with federal money, praying over the food is considered a violation of what is commonly referred to as the separation of church and state. So the prayer that was usually said before meals at the center was dropped in favor of a moment of silence.

Senior Citizens, Inc. provides the meals for the center under a contract with the city of Port Wentworth, near Savannah. The meals cost about $6 a plate, but the seniors pay only 55 cents, with the federal government picking up the tab for the rest. The company’s vice president, Tim Rutherford, told the Associated Press that members of his staff visited the center recently and noticed people praying just before lunch was served. The “moment of silence” was introduced to avoid a potential conflict with federal authorities.

“We can’t scoff at their rules,” Rutherford said. “It’s part of the operational guidelines.” The policy has stirred up a bit of a ruckus in the city and Rutherford feels his company is being unfairly blamed. "It's interpreted that we're telling people that they can't pray, but we aren't saying that," he said. "We're asking them to pray to themselves. Have that moment of silence." But Mayor Glenn "Pig" Jones is anything but silent over his anger at having senior citizens of his city told they may not pray aloud at the center.

"It was one of the hardest things I ever did as mayor is to look those people in the eyes and ask them to be patient with me and honor their God in a moment of silence until I can have a resolution to this," said Jones, who has the city attorney looking into the matter. "For me to look at their eyes and tell them they can't thank God for their food, it's unheard of - I can't take it." Jones said he considered ending the city’s contract with Senior Citizens, Inc.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on prayer in public schools in the 1960’s and subsequent rulings on prayer at school graduations and athletic events, public officials have been entangled in an endless series of controversies over what does or does not constitute a violation of the “separation of church and state.” Christmas concerts in most public and any number of private schools have been supplanted by “holiday” or “winter” concerts, with songs memorializing “Frosty the Snowman,” a “Sleigh Ride” and a “Winter Wonderland,” with no constitutionally troublesome mention of Wise Men, a King named Herod or the rumor of a child to be born in Bethlehem who would be Christ the King. The YMCA is a thoroughly secular organization open to people of all faiths or no faith. But back in the mid-1960’s, the YMCA in Savanna, Georgia was informed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development it would have to drop the word “Christian” from the Young Men’s Christian Association to receive a federal grant for a building project that had been approved. The “Y’ dropped the grant instead. At a Catholic college in my city, no crucifix may be hung in the classrooms of a certain building on campus, because federal funds were used for its construction.

One might well question the existence of any constitutional authority for such spending in the first place. But to say it violates the “separation of church and state” is to stake a claim of constitutional authority on a phrase that appears nowhere in the Constitution. The relevant clause in the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise, thereof…” The amendment’s authors, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention and the state legislators who ratified it understood “establishment of religion” to mean a national church like the Church of England, that enjoyed a favored position with the government and was supported with public funds. At the time the Bill of Rights was adopted and for some time thereafter, some of the states had such an established religion. The First Amendment said the national legislature would neither require nor forbid such an arrangement by any of the states. And there being no government sanctioned establishment of a church or any ecclesiastical authority for the nation as a whole at the time the amendment was adopted, the establishment clause ensured that there would continue to be none, by forbidding Congress to pass any law “respecting” that subject. And in those simpler times, “Congress shall make no law” meant Congress shall make no law. And since the Constitution vested “All legislative powers herein granted” in a Congress of the United States, no one else could create a national establishment of religion, either. For the day had not yet dawned when a child might come home from school and say, “Today we learned how the Supreme Court makes a law.”              

Today, thanks to decisions of the Supreme and lesser courts, an amendment that expressly forbids the federal government from interfering in matters of religion has become the very vehicle for a supervision by the national government, in every village and hamlet in the country, over when, where and under what circumstances people gathered together at a public place my utter a prayer, sing a carol or give thanks to God for the food that sustains our lives.  For nearly half a century the nation has suffered under “interpretations” of the First Amendment that call to mind what a member of the British parliament said about the Treaty of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War:  “Surely this is the peace of god: for it passed all understanding.”

Jack Kenny is a freelance writer living in New Hampshire. Send him an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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