- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

The Virginia Military Institute says it will defend yet another of its traditions the pre-supper prayer against a possible court challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU's Virginia chapter, on behalf of two VMI students, has asked the school to end the practice or let students opt out, saying that as a state school it cannot require students to be part of a religious activity.
But the state's attorney general, who is the lawyer for VMI, and Maj. Gen. Josiah Bunting III, VMI's superintendent, said they are ready for a court fight over the issue.
"The Constitution does not prohibit our saying grace before supper. And we shall continue to do so," Gen. Bunting wrote in a response the ACLU received Monday.
"We appreciate your contribution to the discussion of the issue now taking place among our students and faculty. However, it is apparent that there is much you do not understand about VMI and about our prayer before the evening meal here."
VMI, located about an hour's drive southwest of Charlottesville in Lexington, is famous for former student Gen. George C. Marshall and for former faculty member Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. The school was all-male until 1996, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that 157-year-old tradition unconstitutional.
Now the school looks certain to be heading back to court.
Six nights a week, students attending supper required of all freshmen and sophomores, and something most upperclassmen also attend form outside barracks and go into the mess hall. They come to attention, then stand at ease while a cadet, usually the cadet chaplain, reads the day's grace. Then they eat.
Two juniors, Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, felt requiring students to observe the prayer was wrong. They asked the administration to end the practice and, when the administration said no, they asked the ACLU for help.
Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, said requiring students to be present during the prayer violates the First Amendment prohibition against government-sponsored religion.
Mr. Mellen, a 21-year-old from Los Angeles who was raised a Catholic, told The Washington Times in a phone interview yesterday that he and Mr. Knick were surprised when the administration refused to stop the prayer.
"It's ironic to me that such a school would flout basic laws such a nation was founded on, especially if you're going to have military officers swear to follow the law," Mr. Mellen said.
He said he's heard from both supporters and detractors at the school, but he was surprised at the vitriol of some of those upset with his stance.
"The few times we've tried to sit down and go about our business, we've had members of the cadet regiment in all number of ways explain what we're doing is bad," Mr. Mellen said. Those ways included, on one occasion, throwing crumpled up napkins at the cadets, he said.
The issue has touched off a debate at the school, with Mr. Mellen and school Chaplain James Park writing dueling editorials in the school paper, the Cadet. The chaplain argued that the prayer provides a common spiritual mooring, and he encouraged Mr. Mellen and other cadets to accept the prayer in deference to other cadets.
Some VMI graduates yesterday were supportive of the school's decision to oppose the challenge.
"It is a continuing and further assault on the values and traditions of that school," said Stephen Fogleman Jr., a 1971 graduate and former chairman of the VMI Alumni Association.
Mr. Willis said he still hopes to resolve the issue without going to court, but he, the school and state all seem prepared to end up there.
"The Supreme Court has never said adults assembled for an official meal on a college campus may not hear a blessing offered for the meal," said Virginia's Attorney General Mark L. Earley, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor.
Mealtime practices at the military academies and other schools like VMI vary.
At The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., cadets offer nonsectarian blessings before meals. At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, a chaplain says a prayer before lunch. At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., a prayer is said only before formal dinners.
Neither the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., nor the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, have a pre-meal prayer but both hold brief moments of silence.
But Mr. Willis said VMI isn't a military academy and even in the military nobody can be coerced into a religious ceremony.

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