For blundering federal intrusion on personal choices, this story from Georgia may not ever be topped.  But is that what happened — or did a supplier of meals to the elderly in Port Wentworth, Georgia, just misinterpret the requirements of separation of church and state?  Senior Citizens Inc receives federal grant monies for its delivery of meals to seniors in assisted-living centers, and thought their funding was at risk when seniors began to say grace, as the Associated Press reports:

Senior Citizens Inc. officials said Friday the meals they are contracted by the city to provide to Ed Young visitors are mostly covered with federal money, which ushers in the burden of separating church and state.

On Thursday, the usual open prayer before meals at the center was traded in for a moment of silence.

The dilemma is being hashed out by the Port Wentworth city attorney, said Mayor Glenn “Pig” Jones.

Tim Rutherford, Senior Citizens Inc. vice president, said some of his staff recently visited the center and noticed people praying shortly before lunch was served. Rutherford said his company provides meals like baked chicken, steak tips and rice and salads at a cost of 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 selling it.

We’re getting plenty of e-mail on this subject blaming the federal government, but it’s unclear exactly what prompted SCI to suspend open grace at its meal services.  Unless SCI insisted on saying grace as a part of its meal delivery, the federal government would have no interest at all in what was said and unsaid at table.  People who receive federal assistance in other areas are perfectly within their rights to pray for thanks about it, whether that’s food stamps, welfare, or any other form of assistance.  The government and its agents can’t force someone to pray as a prerequisite for receiving assistance, which is a big difference.

Note, too, that SCI wasn’t leading the prayers, either.  They insisted that people stop praying on their own as the meals were served.  If anything, that imposes a religious requirement of silence on accepting the meals that should also run afoul of the First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of religious observation.  The government can’t set standards that requires conservatives or liberals to silence themselves as a prerequisite to receiving federal assistance, either.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the problem here is SCI’s interpretation of the guidelines than the guidelines themselves.  That doesn’t make the problem go away for those who believe that every meal should be preceded by thanks to the Lord for his provisions, though.  The city needs to expedite its consultation with legal counsel and determine whether SCI is actually stuck between a rock and a hard place or has rocks in its collective head.