Lewis County Seniors board revising prayer, political discussion policy following outcry

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By Owen Sexton / [email protected] 

The Lewis-Mason-Thurston Area Agency on Aging (LMTAAA) spoke out on Wednesday against a policy announced by Lewis County Seniors nonprofit board president Carol Brock that stated prayer and politics are not allowed at the county’s senior centers, with the executive director of the agency calling the policy “unconstitutional” in an internal document.  

During Thursday night’s Lewis County Seniors (LCS) board meeting at the Twin Cities Senior Center, more than a dozen seniors condemned  the nonprofit’s controversial new policy, which seemingly banned open prayer or political discussion at the centers. While they weren’t the majority, some spoke in support of the policy.

Following the public comment period, LCS Board President Carol Brock informed those in attendance the board is currently in the process of revising the policy, but gave no timeline as to when a new policy will be implemented. 

On Friday afternoon, Brock told The Chronicle the board is preparing a statement on the policy, but it was not ready in  time for The Chronicle’s deadline.

Brock earlier this week said the decision — announced by Brock in the August edition of the Senior Dynamics publication — was made following multiple instances of seniors coming to the board to complain about “being preached at” and alleged bullying. 

Brock’s writeup in Senior Dynamics publication went into further detail on the reasoning behind the policy. 

On Aug. 9, the LMTAAA — which Brock claimed was consulted during the policy’s creation as previously reported by The Chronicle — sent a letter to The Chronicle stating it had not given any recommendation nor been involved with the policy’s creation. It was written by Nicole Kiddoo, the LMTAAA’s executive director. 

“The Administration on Aging recommends that each nutrition program adopt a policy that ensures that each individual participant has a free choice whether to pray either silently or audibly, and that the prayer is not officially sponsored, led or organized by persons administering the Nutrition Program or the meal site,” Kiddoo said in the Aug. 9 letter.

Kiddoo said as per the Older Americans Act (OAA), those receiving meals at a senior center or another location providing meals with OAA funding are not forbidden from praying before a meal. 

“The comment in the article is a misstatement of LMTAAA’s role and the way we administer programs,” Kiddoo said. “We will be informing the Lewis County Seniors board we regard the policy as described by Ms. Brock to conflict with the Older Americans Act Title III Congregate Meal Program regulations, policies and law.”

She added while OAA funds cannot be used to support inherently religious activities, religious activities can still take place but must offer them separately, in time or location, from the programs or services funded with OAA money.  

In a separate internal document obtained by The Chronicle, Kiddoo called the bans “unconstitutional.”

Those in attendance during Thursday’s meeting who oppose the policy said they feel their freedoms of speech and religion are still being violated. 

“Somewhere down the line I’ve been labeled as the bully of this center. And the comment that was in Senior Dynamics, I feel that was really centered toward me,” Dan Draper said during Thursday’s meeting. “And I have talked to a number of members of the center, and as far as I know, I have never bullied anybody … I feel that we have 100% the right to express our feelings by prayer or any other way we want to do it.” 

One who spoke out in support of the policy was Sonja Svenson. As a Buddhist, she said she felt the public prayer was exclusionary and with senior center patrons being predominantly Republican, anyone with dissenting political viewpoints were bullied.  

While Brock published her initial opinion to let people know the policy was a board decision and not one made by senior center staff, staff members at centers around the county have faced backlash this week, LCS Financial and Operations Manager Nicole Barr said. 

On Wednesday, a woman was going around the Twin Cities Senior Center calling staff members “Jews,” Barr said. 

“It is bad. Our staff is bearing the absolute brunt of all of this,” Barr said following Thursday’s meeting. “They’re getting cussed at. At one of our other sites, a senior came in with a Bible and our staff member had their child there, and the senior made them sit down while he read the Bible to them.” 

She added senior centers around the county are short staffed, and the number of people calling out sick has skyrocketed this week, placing even more stress on staff members who do show up. 

The topic of the Lewis County Seniors policy gained the attention of Lewis County commissioners Sean Swope and Scott Brummer on Monday. Both were critical of the policy and expressed interest in having a meeting with the Lewis County Seniors board. 

For more information about Lewis County Seniors, visit its website, https://lewiscountyseniors.org/. 

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