Thursday, May 10, 2001

RICHMOND — The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday sued the Virginia Military Institute on behalf of two students who want the school to end its practice of saying grace before the evening meal.
The seven-page complaint, filed in federal district court in Lynchburg, says that as a state institution the school cannot require students presence at the prayer, which is said as part of the mandatory dinners held six nights a week.
VMI vowed to fight the suit, as school superintendent Maj. Gen. Josiah Bunting III wrote in an e-mail to the two students last week.
“My own position, and that of the institutes, is that the current practice of a brief return of thanks, by a cadet before the evening meal, in the mess hall, is a precious link to our heritage and an admirable practice for a school of our provenience and culture.”
VMI, located about an hours drive southwest of Charlottesville in Lexington, guards its traditions and numbers among its alumni Gen. George C. Marshall, an architect of Allied strategy of World War II. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a hero of the Confederacy, taught mathematics there before the Civil War. The school was all-male until 1996, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that 157-year-old tradition unconstitutional.
Now two juniors, Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, argue the pre-supper prayer is also unconstitutional.
Students attending supper come to attention and then stand at ease — while a cadet says grace before they sit down to eat. The meals — required of all freshmen and sophomores, and something most upperclassmen also attend — are served six nights a week.
The students represented in the lawsuit initially asked the school to end the prayer. When the school refused, Mr. Mellen and Mr. Knick called on the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, which repeated the request and received the same refusal.
The crux of the ACLUs argument is that, as a state school, VMI cannot require students to be part of a religious exercise.
“Were relying on the full panoply of Supreme Court decisions of separation of church and state,” said Kent Willis, director of the ACLUs Virginia chapter.
“This includes the school cases, but also the more broad-based cases that consistently say that it violates individuals rights for the state to pressure anyone on matters of faith,” he said.
VMI students are in exams this week and neither Mr. Mellen nor Mr. Knick was available for comment. Mr. Mellen said last month that he had hoped it wouldnt come to legal action.
“Its ironic to me that such a school would flout basic laws such a nation was founded on, especially if youre going to have military officers swear to follow the law,” he said.
VMI yesterday referred calls to the state attorney generals office. Attorney General Mark L. Earley, who will defend the school, said the schools tradition is constitutional and does not force anyone to take part in the prayer.
“Cadets are not compelled to participate, remain at attention or bow their heads during these blessings,” he said.
VMI will likely get the backing of many of its alumni, some of whom have already spoken out in support of fighting the lawsuit. The governors office also weighed in on the matter.
“I guess the ACLU wants to ban praying for those going off to battle next,” said Reed Boatright, a spokesman for Gov. James S. Gilmore III.
Mealtime practices at the military academies and other schools such as VMI vary.
At The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., cadets offer nonsectarian prayers before meals.The Naval Academy in Annapolis asks a chaplain to say 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, has a pre-meal prayer, but both hold moments of silence.

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