Ban on mealtime prayers remains

Supreme Court won't hear appeal regarding military school's tradition

April 27, 2004|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - With only two justices voting to hear the case, the Supreme Court yesterday refused to consider restoring the traditional supper prayers at Virginia Military Institute, a public college.

The Supreme Court's action is the latest in a long line of decisions that tell school officials they must not promote religion or lead group prayers - even, as in this instance, among college students preparing for military careers.

Last year, the normally conservative 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled that the supper prayers at VMI violated the First Amendment's ban on an "establishment of religion."

At VMI, cadets are required to stand at attention while a senior offers a prayer to "almighty God" or "our heavenly Father" and asks for God's blessing on the meal, the academy and the cadets. Although they are required to remain silent, the cadets need not recite the prayer or bow their heads.

Two cadets, Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, told school officials that they objected to prayers and the requirement that they stand during the invocation. When the college's superintendent, Josiah Bunting III, turned away their complaint, they sued in 2001 with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.

A federal judge in Lynchburg, Va., sided with the two cadets and ruled "the primary effect (of VMI's invocations) has been to compel students to participate in a state-sponsored religious exercise."

The state's lawyers appealed, calling this an extreme interpretation of the First Amendment, but a three-judge panel of the appellate court found the supper prayers unconstitutional.

The regular invocations "send the unequivocal message that VMI, as an institution, endorses the religious expressions embodied in the prayer," they wrote. While students are free to pray on their own before meals, the Constitution prohibits VMI from "sponsoring such a religious activity."

When the state appealed to the full court, its judges split 6-6, leaving the original ruling intact. In December, the Virginia attorney general asked the Supreme Court to take up the case and rule that a strict ban on school-sponsored prayers in public schools does not extend to college students.

"Prayer before meals and prayer in military ceremonies are part of the fabric of our society" and need not be eliminated simply because a few students object, argued Jerry Kilgore, the Virginia attorney general.

But in the end, only Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist voted to take up the state's appeal.

"The weighty questions raised by (Virginia's lawyers) deserve this court's attention," Scalia said, particularly since the justices have not ruled squarely on whether the ban on school-sponsored prayers extends to public colleges and universities. The chief justice said he agreed with Scalia's reasoning.

It takes the votes of at least four justices to grant an appeal.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group, applauded yesterday's announcement. "The Constitution does not allow public schools to pressure students to pray, and this action is a reaffirmation of that important principle," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, the group's executive director.

However, Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy organization promoting religious rights based in Virginia Beach, Va., said the justices sent "the wrong message" by turning away the VMI case.

"It is disappointing to see the court let stand a decision that bars voluntary prayer at dinner - a respected and time-honored tradition at a military institution that has played a vital role in training military leaders for more than 160 years," Sekulow said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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