Protesting Forced Prayer at Senior Center: Hank Bulger

By Hank Bulger

At age 68, I figured I would go to the senior center here in Grants, N.M., partially because my VA counselor recommended I get out and socialize with people more. (My counselor is not religious!)

Upon my first visit, I discovered they said the pledge and a prayer before lunch. The pledge is okay, seeing I do it the traditional way (which does not include god). I spoke to the director, Dori Sandoval, about how having mandatory prayer was a violation of church and state, since the center receives both state and federal funding. I also pointed out that she and her staff are employed by the city and that the center is hosted in a city-owned building.

With anger in her voice, Ms. Sandoval informed me:

They always have had someone lead a prayer before lunch is served, and we will continue to have a spoken prayer before anyone eats!”

Then she went on to explain that “if you wish to come in late or be elsewhere in the building when grace is said, you will be counted as a latecomer and sit at the latecomers table and won’t be fed until everybody else has been fed–providing we have enough food!”

There is only one way to interpret her message and that is: “Your punishment for not praying is you wait, and maybe you will be able to have lunch!”

That afternoon I contacted our Grants city manager, Robert Horacek. I explained the situtation and asked him to explain the law to Ms. Sandavol. He assured me he would look into it and get back to me.

I realize that the city manager’s job isn’t easy. But in a town of 8,600, he isn’t that busy. Three weeks went by and absolutely nothing! When I called, he wasn’t available or I was told “he will call you right back.”

On Aug. 14, 2006, I wrote him a letter, explaining the problems and that I was ready to go higher with my complaints. Mr. Horacek finally found time to contact me. He said he was having the city attorney look into the legality of my complaint.

In October, I decided to contact the state’s Office of Area Agency on Aging, which is one of the contributors to the center. After a couple of calls they finally let me speak to the deputy director, Nancy M. Arias. This lady sent me the forms I needed and I filled them out and included photos of praying seniors as evidence and sent them in on the following day to show I was serious about the matter.

When I called near mid-December, Ms. Arias assured me they were having a meeting about the matter and deciding what to do.

In the interim, the New Mexico ACLU contacted the city manager, the city attorney and the director of the senior center and informed them that prayer in a public-sponsored program that receives both state and federal funding is a violation of the US Constitution. Our city manager responded by assuring them that the staff at the center would not be involved in future prayer. However, on Dec. 12, Dori had the kitchen staff come out and appointed a nonstaff member to lead the group in prayer! I then contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which sent a strong letter of complaint.

This battle isn’t over! It’s time the silent majority speaks up!

If anyone would like to drop our city manager a letter expressing how you feel about this blatant violation of our Bill of Rights, here’s the address:

City Manager Robert Horacek
City of Grants
PO Box 879
Grants NM 87020

“I was born and raised in Chicago. I went into the US military and served in Vietnam as a combat photographer the first eight months and an information specialist my last four months. After 14.5 years of service I got out due to service injuries.

“I have a PhD in philosophy; my specialty is comparative religion. I enjoy the study of myth and why people of superstition use the various rituals they do. I have been told I ask too many questions and create doubt. But that is me. I now live in New Mexico, am a member of the Foundation, and enjoy the high desert. I will continue to ask how come ’til my last breath.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation