Mealtime prayer again under fire

ACLU threatens to take legal action against Academy

June 26, 2008|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN REPORTER

A national civil liberties group is renewing a push to end mealtime prayer at the U.S. Naval Academy, where a group of midshipmen recently complained to officials that they felt pressured to participate in the longtime practice.

The tradition, believed to date back to the college's founding in 1845, now involves a chaplain's leading grace before a noon meal that all 4,200 midshipmen must attend at King Hall. Midshipmen are not required to pray, though they must stand during the recital, and most bow their heads.

Nine students recently approached the American Civil Liberties Union for help in getting the academy to end the practice. In a letter recently sent to the academy's superintendent, Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, the ACLU threatened legal action.

"The government should not be in the business of compelling religious observance, particularly in military academies, where students can feel coerced by senior students and officials and risk the loss of leadership opportunities for following their conscience," Deborah A. Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, wrote.

The academy has rejected various requests by the ACLU and other civil liberties groups to end the practice, and a college spokesman said yesterday that its position remains the same.

"The Academy does not intend to change its practice of offering Midshipmen an opportunity for prayer or devotional thought during noon meal announcements," the spokesman, Cmdr. Ed Austin, said in a statement. He said college officials are "coordinating our response with Department of the Navy leadership and will be responding to the ACLU soon."

The ACLU's latest push in Annapolis renews questions about the role of religion at the nation's military colleges.

In 2003, a federal appeals court struck down suppertime prayer at the Virginia Military Institute as a violation of church-state separation.

Two years later, the Air Force Academy faced charges of proselytizing by college personnel and cadets, prompting investigations and new guidelines that discouraged most public prayer throughout the Air Force. The academy observes a moment of silence before meals.

This week, The New York Times reported that about a half-dozen cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point told the paper that religion was a constant at the academy. They pointed to prayers at mandatory banquets and religious terms used in speeches by the college's former top military leader.

A West Point spokesman said it does not have mealtime prayers.

"During a very few big events each year, such as the 500th-night banquet and graduation we have a nondenominational invocation and benediction," said Col. Bryan Hilferty, the spokesman, in an email. "That is all. Not during breakfast. Not during lunch. Not during dinner. Not in a box. Not with a fox. Not in a house. Not with a mouse."

For years, civil liberties groups have petitioned the Naval Academy to stop mealtime prayer. The ACLU said that it has periodically received complaints from midshipmen about the practice and that some students recently wrote anonymously to academy leaders to complain.

Jeon said the ACLU was approached last winter by nine midshipmen who opposed the practice, which involves students standing at "parade rest," bowing their heads and folding their hands while chaplains recite a prayer. Midshipmen are not required to bow their heads, she said, but those who refuse to do so stand out and risk feeling ostracized.

The academy has not responded to the ACLU's May 2 letter to Fowler, she said. "The only option that's left is to file a lawsuit, and we are considering this," Jeon said.

A Navy ensign who graduated from the academy last month said that she and a group of students approached the ACLU last winter because they came to believe the practice was unconstitutional.

The woman, who spoke on the condition that she not be identified because she feared retribution, said students are taught on their first day at the academy to change stances and bow their heads during prayer.

"When everyone around you is doing that, especially as a plebe, it's very domineering and kind of scary if you don't wish to participate," said the woman, who was raised Roman Catholic but is now agnostic.

She said she stopped bowing her head during prayer in her junior and senior years. No one ever remarked about her refusal to bow her head and clasp her hands in front of her during prayer, she said.

"They always say, 'If you will, please join me in prayer.' It's obviously optional, but the fact that everyone around you is doing it makes it a peer influence," the academy graduate said.

Experts have been divided over whether the practice would withstand legal scrutiny.

Eugene R. Fidell, a Washington lawyer who specializes in military law, said the Navy "treads on thin ice" in this case.

"Being in a service academy is a unique environment where obedience and group dynamics are at their apogee," Fidell said. "The danger that individual preferences or conscience will be overridden as a result of group pressure or institutional pressure is palpable."

He added, "It's not a funeral. It's not an inauguration. It's the noon meal. Nothing is more routine than that."

Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., a North Carolina Republican who has introduced legislation in recent years to preserve the right of U.S. military academies to offer grace during mealtime, said the prayer at the academy is an important tradition.

"This has just been part of the education of the midshipmen for years and years," Jones said, pointing out that midshipmen aren't forced to pray. "If that midshipman is standing there with his or her head bowed, they could be thinking about the next Notre Dame-Navy football game."

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