Freedom From Religion Foundation ‘objects’ to prayers at Eagle Nest Senior Center

By Michael Ritterhouse Staff writer

By Michael Ritterhouse Staff writer

By Michael Ritterhouse

Staff writer

EAGLE NEST— Until Aug. 21 “no one ever complained” to Eagle Nest Senior Center site manager Beverly Cownover about the center’s pre-meal Christian prayers. That day the village received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Madison, Wisconsin based nonprofit that describes its mission as protecting “the constitutional principle of separation of state and church.”

In the letter, the FFRF wrote that it objected to the “prayers included with the scheduled meals at the Eagle Nest Senior Center, which is run by the Village.” The nonprofit wrote its complaint was spurred by anonymous complaint.

The three page letter cited United States codes, United States Supreme Court cases, and the Bible, as a justification for the immediate stop to the pre-meal prayers.

After receipt of the letter the town responded immediately by reviewing the senior center’s meal time agenda. Village staff determined the reported prayers were led by participants and reminded senior center staff that they could not “lead or initiate” prayers Village Administrator Lynda Perry said. Perry also said that the agenda has been followed since the Village began management of the Senior Center meal program, which feeds up to 110 a week day during the summer.

Eagle Nest Mayor Richard Cordova said he goes to the senior center three or four times a year and “our people didn’t lead it (prayers).” Cordova emphasized that Village staff are instructed to follow state and federal laws. He also stressed that not allowing individuals to lead prayers would be “an infringement on their rights also.”

In a letter responding to the FFRF, the village’s attorney Vanessa R. Chavez wrote that it is the village’s understanding that the prayers were “initiated by private individuals and occurs (sic) concurrently with other announcements, which are also open to private individuals in attendance” and that “As for private individuals leading prayer, the Village is without authority to prohibit such free speech.”  

Chavez stated the Village’s desire to comply with state and federal laws and that the Village will make it clear to its participants that any prayers are “voluntary and separate from services offered.”

Since receiving the letter Cownover  said the senior center attendees no longer hold hands during prayer for health concerns. Hand holding was one of the FFRF’s complaints. She also said that she has received complaints about the lack of pre-meal prayers now that they are no longer offered.

Eagle Nest Councilor Aaron Becton expressed his concern that the Village “did not use it (the letter) as an opportunity to re-evaluate their procedures.” He did say that he thought a moment of silence was appropriate. He though that it needed to be included as an agenda item at an upcoming Village Council meeting.

“The center should be every senior’s Senior Center,” he said.

Becton said that he had been told by several seniors that they were uncomfortable with the prayers and one even told him, “don’t tell it was me, they’d throw rocks at me.” Becton stressed that he was concerned that the Village should protect the New Mexico’s diversity.