- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2001

The task of the Virginia Military Institute is twofold. First, like any college, it is to educate young men and women. Second, as a military college, its task is to turn them into the smart, tough warriors of the future. Since it was founded in 1839, VMI has done a pretty good job. Some of our greatest generals, including George Patton, were VMI grads. After Patton's time, and at least since the 1950s, part of the daily routine at VMI has been to have a cadet read a non-denominational prayer before the evening meal. Now a Lynchburg, Va., federal judge is considering the American Civil Liberty Union's request for an injunction to stop the VMI evening prayer.

The ACLU has been at war with VMI for more than a decade. The war began when the ACLU sued VMI then an all-male school to force it to accept women. VMI lost that case after years of bitter fighting. Prohibitions on school prayer has been the law of the land for many years. So why does VMI think it has a shot at a different result?

The lawyers say that bad facts make bad law. But in this unusual case, good facts may make good law. The ACLU complaint seeks to stop the evening prayer, not just exempt anyone who wants to be exempt. That's because the plaintiffs two seniors already have the privilege of not joining the pre-dinner ceremony. They, like most upper classmen, can eat later, and skip the ceremony. But aside from the fact that the plaintiffs seek action disproportionate to the supposed problem, the most important fact is, under the Supreme Court's prior decisions, prayer with a secular purpose can be permitted in government-funded activities such as schools. The fact that the VMI cadets are subject to military discipline, and the special nature of their education, appears to fit the evening prayer into that permitted category.

As VMI's brief states, there are three secular purposes to the VMI evening prayer. All are essential to molding cadets into military officers. First, the prayer helps teach cadets about spiritual needs of men and women like those they will be called upon to command; second, it encourages cadets to examine their own spiritual beliefs as a facet of combat leadership; and third, it familiarizes cadets with the kind of non-sectarian prayer often heard at military functions.

Those reasons are precisely what distinguishes VMI and other military schools, like the service academies from other colleges. West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy long ago gave up the ghost on prayer practices like VMI's. It is a shame that they did. A military officer's duty can include ordering people to risk, and lose, their lives. Officers who can understand and respect the spiritual beliefs of their troops will be better leaders and do a better job defending our country. Military colleges have a purpose different from other schools. The court should recognize VMI's purpose and let the evening prayer continue.

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