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Wed, Oct. 16

CV Senior Center replaces mealtime verbal prayer with silent one<BR>

Diners at the Chino Valley Senior Center this past week learned that a silent prayer time would replace their usual verbal prayer recited by volunteers before the center's noon meal.

Review/Salina Sialega

Diners at the Chino Valley Senior Center pause Thursday for a moment of silence that replaced the verbal group prayer that they previously said before mealtime. Town officials determined that the prayer may violate the First Amendment, after one diner complained about the prayer and about having to stand for the prayer.

The change came about after one diner, Chino Valley resident Doris Thompson, complained to the town manager, mayor and council earlier this month, stating she objected to prayer, either spoken or silent, and to having to stand for the prayer. She quoted a portion of a letter that she received from the Arizona Civil Liberties Union that it is likely that the prayer at the center violates the Supreme Court rulings regarding First Amendment rights of individuals.

Announced this past Wednesday and implemented on Thursday, the change stunned many long-time diners, including Chino Valley resident Clifford Landrieth, who said he's coming to the center for two years.

"I feel that as long as we think we know God or Jesus, I'm going to use His name. He knows anyway," Landrieth said Thursday.

"What is a verbal prayer without God," asked diner Jane Kirbie of Chino Valley.

Town attorneys agreed that the prayer, which often used specific religious references, probably violates the First Amendment because the senior center is a government-operated building.

The town staff will draft a non-sectarian/non-denominational prayer to replace the previous verbal prayer. The Senior Center Advisory Board may consider the draft at its next meeting at 1 p.m. on Aug. 13 at the center. The public is welcome to attend.

In the meantime, the volunteer will ask for a moment a silence during which time diners could silently pray if they wanted, following the usual recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance before the meal. No one is forced to stand for either the prayer or the pledge.

In a second letter, Thompson said she would agree to changing only the time that volunteers gave the prayer, but advisory board chose instead to replace the prayer with a moment of silence.

Board Chairman Florence Sloan announced the change in the prayer policy to diners this past Wednesday after the board set an emergency meeting the Monday before and implemented the change on Thursday.

"They were in a state of shock," Sloan said of the diners' reactions after the announcement. Some even cried, others said.

Also on Thursday, Mayor Karen Fann explained how the change came about and allowed time for diners to ask questions about the change. The center serves between an average of 75 people, mainly elderly, weekdays.

"We don't want the town in a lawsuit; we can't afford it," Fann told the diners.

In a July 8 letter from Thompson, however, she stated that she would find it acceptable if the senior center volunteers recited the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance at 11: 30 a.m. rather than at the usual time of noon.

"It interrupts the meal to have to stand," Thompson said. When questioned about her reasons for wanting to eliminate the prayer, she referred to the two letters, saying they best described her thoughts on the matter. The letters say little about her individual concerns and nothing about her personal religious beliefs, but rather generalize about diners who do or don't wish to participate in the prayer.

Thompson stated in the letter that those who don't want to participate in the prayer "are concerned they will be thought irreligious, talked about by the other seniors and even, as has happened, questioned as to why they do not stand."

Diners can arrive at 11:30 a.m. for salad and a beverage, however the entrée is not served until noon. The senior board did not want to change the time, as Thompson suggested.

"Very few people are here at 11:30," Sloan said. More people arrive at noon when the entrée is ready.

Fann told the Thursday diners that the prayer that a volunteer previously recited often included references to "God" or "Jesus Christ," and that any prayers in public places must not have references to a specific religion. She said the town and senior center board could draft a prayer that avoided such language and allow the center to continue with a verbal prayer.

Fann also said the town staff is reviewing the prayer given at the town council meetings as well. She wants to the prayer remain, but clarifies, "I am just one person (voting on the council)."

Thompson also objects to having to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

"We're patriotic, we don't need to recite the pledge when we eat," Thompson said. She does support saying a prayer and the pledge prior to the start of meetings where governing bodies will make decisions about laws, such as the Legislature or the town council. And she said she supports children reciting the pledge in school daily, where repetition can help them learn it.

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