GOP bill backs meal prayers

Move is reply to ruling against VMI's supper grace

Sponsor's `concern is Annapolis'

ACLU has criticized Naval Academy's ritual

October 13, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The legal spat over mealtime prayer at military colleges has swept into Congress, where a group of conservative Republicans is rallying support for a bill to safeguard the right of U.S. military academies to offer grace at their mess halls.

The effort is the first legislative response to federal court rulings striking down suppertime prayer at the Virginia Military Institute as a violation of church-state separation, and to stern warnings from a civil-liberties group that the Naval Academy's lunchtime grace is on shaky constitutional ground.

Annapolis is the only federal academy where a chaplain leads grace before a meal that all 4,200 students must attend. West Point does not offer a mealtime prayer, and the Air Force Academy pauses at lunch for a moment of silence.

"Right now my concern is Annapolis," says Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., a North Carolina Republican and senior member of the House Armed Services Committee who introduced the bill last month. "I have spoken to many graduates of the academies, and they have told me how important their faith and religion is to them."

He cast the bill as part of a broader fight for religion in civic life that included the failed campaign this summer to block the removal of a 2-ton monument of the Ten Commandments from an Alabama courthouse.

"There is an assault across the nation by the extreme left that would like to undermine traditional religion in America," said Jones, a graduate of Atlantic Christian College.

The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has sent letters to the Naval Academy questioning the legality of its lunchtime grace and has invited midshipmen to take the step, however improbable, of suing the school. Though midshipmen can stand silently as a chaplain leads the nondenominational prayer, those who miss any part of lunch can be disciplined.

David R. Rocah, the staff attorney for the Maryland ACLU, said the group fully supports the voluntary exercise of religion, but objects to the academy's grace because students have no choice about whether to attend.

Rocah denounced the Jones bill as "drivel."

"Congress can't authorize the military academies to violate the Constitution," he said. "This is a meaningless exercise in political grandstanding by people cynically attempting to exploit religion for their own political purposes. It's despicable."

The bill would not affect state colleges such as the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., or The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., both of which have scrapped mealtime prayers in response to appellate court rulings this year.

It targets only the three U.S. military academies. Jones said the intent is not to force them to offer prayer at school activities, just to ensure by law their right to do so.

`Wouldn't hurt'

Some legal scholars are skeptical that the bill would give the academies any authority they don't already have. They also doubted that it would afford any new protection against First Amendment lawsuits.

But they said that judges inclined to back mealtime prayer could point to it as an argument for judicial deference to the will of Congress and the executive branch.

"You could see why a statute like this wouldn't hurt," said Ira C. Lupu, a First Amendment specialist at the George Washington University law school. "But I don't think it can alter in the slightest the constitutional questions."

Advocates

The Jones bill has 23 co-sponsors, including Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican. It has been sent to the House Armed Services Committee, which has yet to set any hearings or votes.

The bill has become a minor cause among some members of the House. Republican Rep. Joseph R. Pitts of Pennsylvania plugged the bill at a talk Sept. 30 to a group of social conservatives known as the Values Action Team. Jones will try to muster wider support at a meeting Wednesday of the House Republican Conference.

Jones said the academies have told his staff that it would be improper to take an official stand on the bill, though he said he has received encouragement from alumni.

Changes unlikely

It seems unlikely that the bill, if enacted, would lead to any immediate changes at the tradition-steeped academies.

The Naval Academy has said it has no plans to change its lunchtime ritual, which officials there say may date to the school's founding in 1845.

Officials at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., said the 201-year-old school has never offered a prayer at mealtime and likely never will.

"Although spiritual, moral and ethical development of cadets is part of the West Point experience, we don't have any record of ever having organized prayer at mealtime," said Maj. Kent P. Cassella, a spokesman.

At lunch at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., a cadet on a platform says "wing at ease" just before the meal, to signal a 10-second moment of silence.

"You can take out time to pray or you can think about your Harley, your boyfriend or girlfriend, or nothing," said Meade Worthen, a school spokesman.

He said the school was unlikely to tinker with tradition. "I would be shocked," he quipped, "unless we get taken over by a theocracy."

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