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Georgia Mayor Hopes to End Flap Over Prayer Before Meals at Senior Center

Port Wentworth Mayor Glenn "Pig" Jones, second from left, and Eric Johnson, a Republican candidate for governor, center, met with senior citizens Monday at the Ed Young Senior Citizens Center.

Port Wentworth Mayor Glenn "Pig" Jones, second from left, and Eric Johnson, a Republican candidate for governor, center, met with senior citizens Monday at the Ed Young Senior Citizens Center. (Johnson campaign)

If there's one thing Mayor Glenn "Pig" Jones can't stomach, it's telling elderly citizens at a local senior citizens center that they can't pray before meals.

But Jones, mayor of Port Wentworth, Ga., a town of roughly 3,000 near Savannah, has been doing just that since last week, when the company that provides food for the seniors -- with federal funding -- determined that saying an organized prayer before meals violates the separation of church and state. 

Instead of a communal prayer, they said, seniors should observe a moment of silence.

Now Jones says he hopes a meeting on Tuesday with the city's attorney and officials from the Ed Young Senior Citizens Center will settle the controversy.

"What I'm hoping for is that our people get with their people and they say, 'Go back and tell your people they can pray,'" Jones told FoxNews.com. "We'll see where we stand."

Officials from Senior Citizens Inc., which operates the senior center, have said the meals they provide to visitors are mostly covered with federal money -- so saying a communal prayer before chowing down is a violation of federal regulations.

"We can't scoff at their rules," Tim Rutherford, Senior Citizens Inc.'s vice president, told the Associated Press. "It's part of the operational guidelines."

Rutherford, who did not respond to messages seeking comment on Monday, said his company provides meals like baked chicken, steak tips and salads for roughly $6 a plate. Seniors who eat the meals pay 55 cents apiece, he said, with federal money footing the rest of the bill.

Rutherford said the moment of silence was introduced at the center to protect that funding. He insisted anyone at the center can worship whomever they please.

"It's interpreted that we're telling people that they can't pray, but we aren't saying that," he said. "We're asking them to pray to themselves. Have that moment of silence."

Casey Arnett, director of the senior center, said officials are trying to enforce the moment of silence, but she acknowledged they have little power to stop anyone intent on saying a prayer before digging in.

"We are trying to enforce a moment of silence, but it's freedom of speech and freedom of religion, so we don't have control of what they do," Arnett told FoxNews.com. "If they stand up and pray, I don't have any control over it."

She said the seniors who visit the center are no strangers to standing up for what they believe. "They're not going to let people tell them their rights about religion," she said. "They feel like they need to stand for theirs."

Eric Johnson, a former state senator now running for governor, visited the center Monday and said a blessing outside just before lunch to roughly 50 elderly citizens.

"I told them they're not fighting this alone," Johnson, a Republican, told FoxNews.com. "To heck with the federal government -- we can't stop people from free practice of their faith."

Meanwhile, Jones, who said he was so "outraged" upon learning of the controversy that he couldn't appear for on-camera interviews last week, is confident a compromise can be made.

"This country means a lot to me, but the part that I don't respect is it telling me I cannot pray over my meal," Jones said. "I can't accept and look them 65- and 70-year-olds in the eyes and tell them they cannot pray and bless their meals."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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