The Hood River Valley Adult Center is denying charges that it violated a former employee’s right of religious expression.
In fact, the board of directors contends they were protecting the individual freedoms of a diverse clientele by not allowing the past chef, Michael Harrington, to write “God Bless” on the menu board for the annual Thanksgiving lunch on Nov. 15.
“People come here to enjoy a festive occasion — an opportunity to dress up with friends and share a meal — not for a religious experience,” said Heidi Musgrave, executive director of the center.
Although Harrington, the pastor of Mountain View Baptist Church, left his cooking position shortly after the conflict with Musgrave, he recently chose to publicize his stand on the issue. (Harrington’s letter to the editor on the topic ran in the Jan. 4 edition.) Since Harrington is currently abroad on a mission to the Philippines, his wife, Glynda, spoke on his behalf in a recent interview.
“We’re going to lose our freedom to meet and worship God if we aren’t willing to rock the boat over something like this,” she said.
However, Musgrave said that Harrington’s action could have alienated people from other faiths. In addition, she said the center, while privately funded, was in a “gray area” legally with “separation of church and state” laws since Harrington was an employee and the meals program receives a federal subsidy.
The Harringtons have accused the center of operating a “bait and switch” scam since officials advertise the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals by their Christian names and collect money — without allowing any direct reference to the deity who is honored in both holidays.
But Musgrave said both holidays have also evolved into cultural events for many nonbelievers. She said the Harrington’s stand insults the intelligence of both seniors and volunteers since they know exactly what to expect when they walk in the door of the dining room — a hearty subsidized meal and plenty of good conversation.
“It is entirely untrue that people are censored in what they say here, they can talk about whatever they want to each other,” she said.
Musgrave said the center keeps the cost of meals as low as possible, $2.50 for regular lunches and $5 for special occasions, to provide a social outing for many seniors with limited options. In addition, she said the goodwill of the board of directors is further demonstrated by providing a free Christmas dinner to more than 100 volunteers in repayment for their work on behalf of Hood River’s elderly population.
“To negate their (volunteers) efforts by this statement is really unfair,” Musgrave said.
However, the Harringtons contend that America was founded on Judeo-Christian values with special Constitutional protection given for the right to openly worship — a freedom that citizens are slowly losing.
“She (Musgrave) tried to turn this into an insubordination issue but it never was about that,” said Glynda. “I think it’s an attack of anything that is Godly.”
Musgrave said Harrington was hired with full knowledge that he would not be allowed to “proselytize, politicize or merchandise” as an employee of the center, a condition he agreed to and followed during his first holiday season in 2001. She said the problem escalated into a disciplinary issue after he refused to comply with her directive not to pencil in the blessing — which he did several times after it was first erased.
“He told her that the only way she was going to stop him was to fire him,” Glynda said.
Following Harrington’s challenge, Musgrave took the matter before the board of directors who upheld her action and decided to commit their long-standing verbal policy into writing. Harrington was also given a contract to sign outlining his duties and role, but Glynda said he chose to quit after viewing the document since he believed it was laying the framework for his dismissal.
“He loved the people, he was very sad to leave but he believed this was very wrong — there was nothing rebellious about his wishing God’s blessings on people,” said Glynda.
Musgrave said the center routinely rents meeting space to religious organizations and other non-profit groups at a discount. However, she said people from all faiths and walks of lives should be able to gather for organized meals and other activities without the risk they will be offended by another individual’s religious observance.
“We can’t make that stand and we’re not the place to make that stand,” she said.