Monday, May 10, 2010

Who is protecting our religious liberties?

It seems everyday brings another story about our religious liberties under attack. Whether in Georgia, where seniors are being told they cannot pray before a meal, or in Texas where a church is fighting to meet in its own church, the government is forcing those of faith to protect themselves from the government. Constitutionally, our government is to protect its people, and yet in reality, when it comes to our religious liberties, the people need to protect themselves from the government.

Port Wentworth, Ga.

The mayor of a Georgia town remains hopeful he won't have to stomach telling elderly citizens they cannot pray before meals at a senior center.

If there's one thing Mayor Glenn "Pig" Jones can't stomach, it's telling elderly citizens at a local senior citizens center that they can't pray before meals.

But Jones, mayor of Port Wentworth, Ga., a town of roughly 3,000 near Savannah, has been doing just that since last week, when the company that provides food for the seniors -- with federal funding -- determined that saying an organized prayer before meals violates the separation of church and state.

Instead of a communal prayer, they said, seniors should observe a moment of silence.

Now Jones says he hopes a meeting on Tuesday with the city's attorney and officials from the Ed Young Senior Citizens Center will settle the controversy.

"What I'm hoping for is that our people get with their people and they say, 'Go back and tell your people they can pray,'" Jones told "We'll see where we stand."

Officials from Senior Citizens Inc., which operates the senior center, have said the meals they provide to visitors are mostly covered with federal money -- so saying a communal prayer before chowing down is a violation of federal regulations.

"We can't scoff at their rules," Tim Rutherford, Senior Citizens Inc.'s vice president, told the Associated Press. "It's part of the operational guidelines."

Rutherford, who did not respond to messages seeking comment on Monday, said his company provides meals like baked chicken, steak tips and salads for roughly $6 a plate. Seniors who eat the meals pay 55 cents apiece, he said, with federal money footing the rest of the bill.

Rutherford said the moment of silence was introduced at the center to protect that funding. He insisted anyone at the center can worship whomever they please.

"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."

Casey Arnett, director of the senior center, said officials are trying to enforce the moment of silence, but she acknowledged they have little power to stop anyone intent on saying a prayer before digging in.

"We are trying to enforce a moment of silence, but it's freedom of speech and freedom of religion, so we don't have control of what they do," Arnett told "If they stand up and pray, I don't have any control over it."

She said the seniors who visit the center are no strangers to standing up for what they believe. "They're not going to let people tell them their rights about religion," she said. "They feel like they need to stand for theirs."

Eric Johnson, a former state senator now running for governor, visited the center Monday and said a blessing outside just before lunch to roughly 50 elderly citizens.

"I told them they're not fighting this alone," Johnson, a Republican, told "To heck with the federal government -- we can't stop people from free practice of their faith."

Meanwhile, Jones, who said he was so "outraged" upon learning of the controversy that he couldn't appear for on-camera interviews last week, is confident a compromise can be made.

"This country means a lot to me, but the part that I don't respect is it telling me I cannot pray over my meal," Jones said. "I can't accept and look them 65- and 70-year-olds in the eyes and tell them they cannot pray and bless their meals."

Texas Church Fights to Meet in its Own Building

Leon Valley, Texas
Elijah Group, an Evangelical Christian Church, is fighting City Hall in Leon Valley, Texas. The city says it's fine for the church to use the facilities for a day care and counseling center, but it cannot meet in the building for worship on the weekends because of zoning laws.

Lori Windham, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the city is ignoring the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) in order to make revenue from retail businesses.

"The City of Leon Valley near San Antonio used to allow churches to locate all over the city," she said. "Then they went back and said, 'We're only going to allow churches in one of the 13 zones.' My client came in. They bought a church building. It's always been a church building. And the city said 'Nope. Sorry. It can't be used as a church building anymore. We want this to be a retail store.'"

Windham and The Becket Fund are suing, asking the court to rule on behalf of religious liberty.

"We're asking the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to say that cities can't do this," she said, "that cities have to treat churches the same way they would treat other assemblies that do make them money.

"The implications for churches across the state are enormous," she added. "Leon Valley wants to set a precedent saying that cities can treat churches worse than secular assemblies simply because churches don't generate enough tax revenue."

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