The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland called on the U.S. Naval Academy yesterday to review its practice of leading students in lunchtime prayer, saying that a federal appeals court decision involving the Virginia Military Institute raises serious legal questions.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction covers Maryland, Virginia and three other states, ruled Monday that VMI's suppertime grace violated the First Amendment because of a "coercive atmosphere" that gave students little real choice about participating.
"The logic of the decision applies directly to the Naval Academy practice," said Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, which sued VMI on behalf of two cadets. "The Naval Academy has the prayer on a daily basis, they're sponsored by the school, they take place at meals where everyone is required to attend."
David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU's Maryland chapter, said, "I'm calling on them to re-examine" their practice. He would not discuss whether the group was planning any legal action.
Annapolis is the only federal service academy to lead students in a mealtime grace. The Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine academies offer a moment of silence before meals; the U.S. Military Academy at West Point does not even offer that.
Officials at the Naval Academy declined to comment yesterday. But a Navy official said that the service will review the ruling for any potential impact.
In a noontime ritual that may date to the Naval Academy's founding in 1845, a chaplain climbs a platform at the mess hall and leads students in a short, nondenominational grace. The school's 4,000 midshipmen do not have to pray. But they must be in attendance, with latecomers facing the same discipline - typically lost privileges - as those tardy to class.
In an interview last fall, Cmdr. Bill Spann, academy spokesman, defended the ritual. "We feel strongly that adequate personal and spiritual development is an important aspect to developing a 21st-century warrior," he said.
Some legal scholars say that as a Defense Department school where students are active-duty sailors, the Naval Academy may be held to different standards than VMI, a state-financed college that prepares students for military and civilian jobs.
Courts have often deferred to the military, on the belief that some limits on freedom are required to ensure order. In 1986, for instance, a divided Supreme Court upheld an Air Force rule that barred a Jewish captain from straying from standard dress by wearing a skullcap.
"For the most part, soldiers don't have the rights of privacy other people have, they don't have the freedom of speech other people have and to some extent they don't have the full scope of religious freedom others do," said L. Lynn Hogue, a professor at the Georgia State University College of Law and a retired Army lawyer.
A footnote in the appeals court's 28-page ruling seemed to leave room for such an argument, pointing out that the court was not asked to rule on religious practices in the armed services. "The Virginia General Assembly, not the Department of Defense, controls VMI," the judges wrote.
Monday's ruling by a three-judge panel in Richmond upheld a January 2002 decision of U.S. District Court in Lynchburg.
The appellate judges said VMI's culture of "obedience and conformity" made the prayer ritual unconstitutional, even if students are free to remain silent.
"VMI's cadets are plainly coerced into participating in a religious exercise," the judges wrote. "The technical `voluntariness' of the supper prayer does not save it from its constitutional infirmities."
Though there is ample case law on prayer in public grade schools, the VMI ruling is one of the first at an appellate level dealing with prayer at a college.
"What this suggests is that the Supreme Court's precedents on school prayer and other church-state issues don't just cease to apply when someone graduates from high school," said Glenberg, of the ACLU.
Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore vowed to seek a review by the full 4th Circuit, contending that VMI's prayers were "precisely the sort of prayers" recited at the Naval Academy and across the military.