Challenge to lunch prayer at Academy

Anti-Defamation League plans to ask Congress to halt practice

Head of Naval Academy has refused

July 07, 2005|By Grant Huang and Arthur Hirsch | Grant Huang and Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The Anti-Defamation League, arguing that the lunchtime prayer at the U.S. Naval Academy violates the separation of church and state, says it will ask Congress and the secretary of the Navy to stop the practice.

The group sent a letter last month to the academy in Annapolis but has received no formal reply, said Myrna Shinbaum, a spokeswoman for the organization devoted to fighting anti-Semitism and other discrimination.

"We will continue to make our concerns known through the Armed Services Committee of the Senate and House, as well as with the secretary of the Navy, and continue to raise the issue in the public arena," she said, declining to be more specific.

In his June 17 letter, ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman asked Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the Naval Academy superintendent, to stop requiring all 4,000 midshipmen to "stand in formation, before lunch, while the chaplain recites a prayer."

Academy spokesman Cmdr. Rod Gibbons said yesterday that the school had reviewed the letter but would make no formal response beyond what Rempt has said.

Rempt said at a recent meeting of the academy's Board of Visitors that part of the reason for the prayer is to encourage future officers to understand other religions. He said, to the approval of board members, that he does not intend to change the policy on prayer.

"One part of this process involves offering the brigade of midshipmen a nonsectarian prayer, a moment of silence or devotional thoughts during announcements before most weekday noontime meals at the academy," a statement issued by the Naval Academy said.

The prayer is rotated daily among clergy of different faiths.

The faith of the particular chaplain leading the prayer - the only ritual of this kind at a U.S. service academy - is not the question, said Shinbaum.

"The issue is that it is mandatory for the midshipmen to stand there while they speak," she said. "There are many places at the academy where this could be done, but not at a mandatory lunch prayer."

At the Air Force Academy, the noon meal is preceded by 20 seconds of silence. At West Point, there is no prayer or period of silence but cadets are free to pray if they wish, a spokesman said.

"I think it's unfair to those of us who have religion to deny us our freedom of religion," George Maxwell of Melbourne, Fla., said as he and his wife waited last week for their daughter, Chelsea, to begin her Navy career.

Foxman's letter echoes an April 2003 complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland, the litigation and education branch of the ACLU of Maryland.

The organization's executive director, Susan Goering, had written then-Academy Superintendent Richard Naughton asking that he "reconsider" the prayer in view of the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that month declaring that a supper prayer at the Virginia Military Institute was unconstitutional.

In a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Virginia on behalf of two VMI cadets, the 4th Circuit ruled in April 2003 that the supper prayer violated the First Amendment provision against government establishment of religion. The court rejected VMI's argument that the prayer was voluntary and served a secular purpose of cultivating leadership qualities among the cadets.

"When a state-sponsored activity has an overtly religious character, courts have consistently rejected efforts to assert a secular purpose for that activity," said the opinion. Because of VMI's "coercive atmosphere," the court said, the prayer could not be considered voluntary.

In April 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear VMI's appeal of the decision.

David Rocah, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland, said yesterday that his organization is not actively pursuing the Naval Academy matter now. The organization would have brought suit against the academy earlier but, Rocah said, no midshipmen "wanted to begin their naval career by suing the Naval Academy."

Rocah said "it shouldn't take a lawsuit to force the government to obey the law" as decided by the 4th Circuit, "probably the most conservative" of the appeals courts.

He said he considered the Naval Academy lunchtime prayer and the VMI ritual "utterly indistinguishable."

Steven Fitschen, president of the National Legal Foundation, which had filed a brief supporting the VMI in 2003, challenged that argument.

"If there are significant factual differences" a court could well rule in favor of the academy ritual, he said, arguing that these practices should be seen not as coercive, but as upholding a "tradition."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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