Like a lot of older folks, Maryland resident Margaret Sayre enjoys taking meals at a nearby senior center. She doesn't have to cook and gets some social interaction at the same time.
But there was one thing about the practice that bothered Sayre: The meals at the Brooklyn Park Senior Center open with Christian prayers led by an attendee. Sayre says she had no problem when the meals opened with a moment of silence, but when Christian prayers became the norm, she wondered if that was appropriate at a government-funded facility.
Sayre began making inquiries with local officials. She also posted e-mail messages on a forum run by the Maryland Atheist Network, seeking advice.
Somehow, one of these messages ended up in the hands of Del. Don Dwyer Jr. of Glen Burnie, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.
Infuriated, Dwyer sent a letter to Sayre.
"You state it is not fair for you, or anyone else who is not a Christian, to have to listen to others prayers in order to have a nice meal with other senior citizens," Dwyer wrote. "You go on to ask, 'is there any law that would help me change this practice?' If the atheist (sic) of Maryland want something different then I would suggest building an atheist Senior Center where you won't have to hear any prayers but leave my people alone."
Dwyer ordered Sayre to "immediately stop any attempt to interfere with the religious freedoms of my constituents who use the Brooklyn Park Senior Center."
David Condo, Maryland director of American Atheists (and an Americans United member), said, "I was just infuriated at the condescending nature that this letter implies. It doesn't offer much in terms of compromise and middle ground. This is not Christianity versus atheism, it's about government being neutral in terms of religion and a representative treating constituents with the respect they deserve."
But Dwyer stuck by his guns, telling The Maryland Gazette, "Anybody should have the right to pray at mealtime wherever and whenever they want to....What is the violation of church and state?... There is no separation of church and state in the Constitution that the atheists profess it to be."
Local officials and other state lawmakers declined to stand up for Sayre, but word of Dwyer's rude missive soon began circulating on the web. Michael Nord, an Americans United member in Virginia, decided to take Dwyer to task. In an e-mail message to the legislator, Nord pointed out that the U.S. Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. He went on to chide Dwyer for attacking an elderly woman.
"Way to go, attacking a little old lady who is asking for your help," Nord wrote. "Did you kick some puppies today too? I'd hope that the people of Maryland would have higher standards for their public servants."
Dwyer wrote back, accusing Nord of being ignorant of the Constitution and adding, "Fortunately in Maryland our constitution under the Declaration of Rights article 36 still states that in order to serve in elected office you have to believe in God. Isn't that great!!!"
Dwyer is apparently ignorant of the fact that the provision he cites was declared null and void by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1961 decision Torcaso v. Watkins. That ruling, brought by a Maryland resident who refused to affirm a belief in God as a condition of becoming a notary public, ended "religious tests" for public office in the handful of state constitutions that retained them.
And what of Margaret Sayre? She hasn't been back to the senior center since receiving Dwyer's message. She doesn't feel welcome any more. "When you're outnumbered, you know it," she said. "It's a very touchy subject."
If you would like to share your thoughts on this matter with Del. Dwyer, you can reach him at: Don_Dwyer@house.state.md.us.