Court case could affect Naval Academy prayer

VMI cadets challenge required meal grace

March 30, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Each weekday at noon, a chaplain mounts a platform at the Naval Academy's sprawling mess hall, reaches for a microphone and leads a short prayer. All 4,000 midshipmen stand, many with heads bowed, until the prayer is over. Then the young men and women are permitted to sit for lunch.

Lunchtime grace has been around as long as anyone at the military college can recall, a custom that occupies a few seconds of every midshipman's day and might well date to the school's birth 157 years ago.

But it could be in jeopardy.

In January, a federal judge ruled that the Virginia Military Institute's practice of leading cadets in a mealtime grace - nearly identical to the academy's - violates separation of church and state. VMI appealed, sending the case to an appeals court whose rulings bear on Maryland as well as Virginia.

Legal analysts say that if the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the lower-court ruling, it might force the academy to drop its lunchtime prayer.

Annapolis, the only U.S. service academy with a daily grace, has already begun a review of the legality of its lunch prayers.

"They seem to be quite similar to VMI's supper prayers," says Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director for the ACLU's Virginia chapter, which sued VMI on behalf of two cadets. "First, the school is putting its official endorsement on religious belief. Second, students are required to be there."

The case highlights the tensions between constitutional protections of religious freedom and the military's often conservative culture of obedience and conformity.

Legal analysts say that an appellate ruling could set an important precedent in the scant case law covering religious practices at military schools and even public colleges.

Most court opinions on school prayer concern public elementary and high schools. The last legal milestone for military academies came in 1972, when the Supreme Court left in place a lower-court decision blocking academies from requiring students to attend chapel services.

Prayer called an `option'

Naval Academy officials say their lunchtime grace is nonsectarian and often topical, seeking God's blessing for sailors in conflict or for a sick midshipman, or offering thanks for the meal.

"It is made available as an option to minister to the spirit of the brigade," says Cmdr. Bill Spann, the academy's spokesman. "The chaplain says, `Let us pray,' and you do if you want to and don't if you don't."

When President Bill Clinton visited the academy in 1993, he prayed with midshipmen before lunch.

Yet, as at VMI, attendance at lunchtime is obligatory. All 4,000 midshipmen gather in formation outside the King Hall dining facility, enter together and remain standing for the announcements and prayer.

Latecomers face the same discipline - usually a loss of privileges - as those tardy to class.

The Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine academies, while requiring attendance at meals, offer just moments of silence beforehand. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point doesn't even offer that.

Cmdr. Ira E. Ramsey, the command chaplain at the Merchant Marine school in Long Island, N.Y., says that the few seconds of silence let students personalize prayers in a way impossible were they said aloud as a group.

"What is the purpose of prayer if you can't say, `God, heavenly father, Jesus?'" he asks. "The least offensive way of dealing with the issue is just silence. No one can claim that the academy is trying to push their belief upon somebody else."

Courts have generally allowed invocations at special events such as public college graduations. And prayer is commonplace at a range of military ceremonies, from changes of command to memorial services and retirements.

A captive audience

But some legal scholars say that a regular mealtime grace is on shakier ground because of the daily recitation, the penalties for absence, the age of the students, and a military setting that exacts uniformity in most aspects of life.

"School officials should not be in the business of writing or uttering prayer" to a captive audience, says Ira C. Lupu, a First Amendment specialist at George Washington University.

But others say that the academy, unlike VMI, is an arm of the military and enjoys a deference judges have typically shown the armed forces. In 1986, a divided Supreme Court upheld an Air Force rule that barred a Jewish captain from straying from standard dress by wearing a skullcap.

"People in the military enjoy a diminished set of First Amendment rights," contends L. Lynn Hogue, a retired Army lawyer who teaches at the Georgia State University School of Law and co-wrote a book on military law. In addition, he said, "the military has more latitude with respect to prescribed religious observance as a way to increase good order and discipline."

The Naval Academy requires graduates to spend five years in the military, whereas VMI is a state college, in Lexington, Va., that grooms "citizen-soldiers" for a range of civilian and military careers.

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