State/Church FAQ

Religious Activities at Senior Centers

They make us listen to prayer before we eat lunch at public-funded senior centers. Help!

An unfortunately common state/church violation concerns prayer imposed on a captive audience of senior citizens before lunch at public-funded senior centers. This is illegal!

An unfortunately common state/church violation concerns prayer imposed on a captive audience of senior citizens before lunch at public-funded senior centers. This is illegal! (See the clear law, below.) Senior center staff and volunteers should not be broadcasting, hosting or reciting a verbal prayer, asking other diners to volunteer for prayer, making you rise and stand for prayer, or playing religious music as a prelude to lunch. We have heard of violations so out-of-hand that seniors lose their place in line and have to wait for lunch if they arrive "late" (after the prayer).

If you are unable to complain or your complaints have been ignored, you may contact FFRF for help. We need to know the name and address of the senior center, the executive director's name, and, if you know it, it's helpful to be given details about the funding stream (which public agencies, city, county, state or federal, help subsidize the lunch or center). A brochure or lunch schedule at the senior center may contain information about government funding. It is helpful to know specifics: who leads the prayer, whether "Jesus Christ" is routinely invoked, and other descriptions of the violation.

Below is all the information you may need to end this flagrant violation.

Senior Centers / Senior Nutrition & Transportation Assistance Programs

Often these centers and programs receive funding from the federal government in the form of Social Services Block Grants (SSBGs) via Title XX of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1397. Social Services Block Grants (SSBGs) are administered by the Department of Health and Human Services according to the stipulations enumerated in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), 45 C.F.R. §§ 96.70–96.74. The CFR is explicit and unequivocal in its prohibition on religious activities as part of any program funded through an SSBG via the Department of Health and Human Services.

SSBGs are governed by Section 2 (Formula and Block Grants) of Part 87 (Equal Treatment for Faith-Based Organizations) of Subchapter A (General Administration) of Subtitle A (Department of Health and Human Services) of Title 45 (Public Welfare) of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which states:

(c) Organizations that receive direct financial assistance from the Department may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization, as part of the programs or services funded with direct financial assistance from the Department. If an organization conducts such activities, the activities must be offered separately, in time or location, from the programs or services funded with direct financial assistance from the Department, and participation must be voluntary for beneficiaries of the programs or services funded with such assistance. 45 C.F.R. § 87.2.

Additionally, the CFR clearly proscribes any discrimination on the basis of religious belief in the dissemination of services funded by an SSBG via the Department of Health and Human Services. Section 87.2 of Title 45 of the Code of Federal Regulations reads:

(e) An organization that participates in programs funded by direct financial assistance from the Department shall not, in providing services, discriminate against a program beneficiary or prospective program beneficiary on the basis of religion or religious belief. 45 C.F.R. § 87.2.

Often, local and regional senior centers and programs were established under the Older Americans Act (OAA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 3001-3058ff. The local and regional senior centers and programs receive their Social Services Block Grants (SSBGs) through State and Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs), as well as grants administered directly under the Older Americans Act (OAA). The AAAs receive the SSBGs and OAA grants from the federal government, according to the Older Americans Act, all of which is overseen by the Administration on Aging (AoA). The Administration on Aging is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Organizations receiving OAA grants must also abide by the prohibition on religious activities provided in the CFR. The Area Agency on Aging (AAA) will typically have some type of advisory board or council, which may be addressed in instances of Establishment Clause violations.

Thanks to our intern Sarah Braasch, for her legal research.

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