Meal prayer at Ga. senior center stopped, then restored

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. — Oral prayer before meals has resumed at the Ed Young Senior Citizens Center near Savannah after it was briefly replaced by a moment of silence last week.

Senior Citizens Inc. officials said May 7 that because the meals they were contracted by the city to provide to Ed Young visitors were mostly paid for with federal money, a church-state separation requirement was in force.

Tim Rutherford, Senior Citizens Inc. vice president, said some of his staff had visited the center and noticed people praying aloud shortly before lunch was served. Rutherford said his company provided meals like baked chicken, steak tips and rice and salads for about $6 a plate. Seniors taking the meals pay 55 cents and federal money foots the rest of the bill, Rutherford said.

“We can't scoff at their rules,” he said of federal authorities. “It's a part of the operational guidelines.”

Rutherford said the moment of silence was introduced to protect that funding. He said although the change may have been misinterpreted, perhaps his company could have done a better job explaining it. “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 yesterday, according to Morris News Service in the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, vocal mealtime prayer was restored after a clarification and reversal by a Georgia state agency.

“I thank the Lord for that,” center member Ruby Neesmith said in the Augusta newspaper report. “We should have the freedom to speak up and pray.”

Port Wentworth Mayor Glenn “Pig” Jones announced the reversal at a news conference at the senior center, the Chronicle said. He provided a statement he said was from Patricia Lyons, president of Senior Citizens Inc. Lyons' statement said the Georgia Department of Human Services, Division of Aging Services had clarified and reversed its position on meal prayer yesterday. According to Lyons, the state had said for years that oral prayer was not permitted in any senior centers.

However, Savannah TV statio WTOC reported yesterday that the state denied any policy against meal prayer was ever in effect.

The station's Web site quoted an e-mail from the human resources/aging services agency to Senior Citizens Inc., stating there had never been any policy that “would prohibit an individual from praying either publicly or privately, before or after a meal.”

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