- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2001

The American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Virginia Military Institute seeks to end mealtime prayer because it offends two cadets. On its face this seems like the usual fare served up by the ACLU. The ACLU will be the stalwart defenders of the Bill of Rights. VMI will argue that the prayers do not violate Article III protections. But in the context of a military institution is it important if they do? No, it is not.
A fundamental military value stresses the almost quaint notion that the individual is dependent upon the group. Anyone who has been through boot camp or a plebe year understands that the lone wolf becomes the anathema. Military life is communal. Inherent in that life is the notion that one gives up, albeit temporarily, certain freedoms.
Will we soon hear that uniforms are an infringement of free speech rights? Will "lights out" violate a cadets right to freedom of assembly? Does marching with a rifle a "punishment tour" in cadet vernacular- constitute cruel and unusual punishment? Despite a recent trend to make our military institutions politically correct, the truth is they cannot successfully focus on the individual. Individual needs, wants, desires, and complaints take a back seat to the mission of the group.
The two plaintiffs and the ACLU fail to grasp that religion, for many, is an integral part of a military life. The cadets do not understand what so many of their peers do. Tradition, discipline and sometimes religion yes, religion- are a most appropriate way to deal with the stressful challenges of military life. The structure it provides can be as vital to success as a weapon.
Military service can be harsh, dangerous, unrewarding, and downright boring. But we require our officers to lead Americans from a variety of backgrounds who worship in a number of different venues-or not at all. Whether the troops are Catholic, Jew, Buddhist, Wiccan, or agnostic is irrelevant. The effective leader cannot take immature offense to the mere presence of religion. To effectively lead in the military, one must recognize that respect and tolerance for religious values is vital to protecting religious freedom. Because beyond the gates of VMI lies an America protected by selfless individuals for who well recognize that dynamic.
The ACLU will say it is clearly not the case and that religion and the military are not co-dependent. I could find legions of combat veterans who will tell me the two are closely intertwined. Ask the survivors of the USS Cole tragedy if religion was not integral to their experience. Or ask the families of those sailors who died. Veterans of Omaha Beach, the Chosin Reservoir, or Khe Sahn will tell us that no lawsuit will eradicate the presence of religion in the fabric of the military psyche.
VMI has in one sense failed in their mission. They have failed to provide the two plaintiffs with an appropriate understanding that discipline is about doing what you do not like to do when duty compels otherwise. It is about giving a cheery "yes, sir" when the task is not to ones liking. Should the cadets prevail in their case, they will not truly embody the core values of their institution. No cadet who puts his personal emotional comfort above that of the group can understand the concept of service to nation. VMI graduates are known more for their discipline in the face of adversity than their quibbling.

Chris Gallagher is a Visiting Military Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a military officer, and a graduate of The Citadel. The opinions expressed are his own.


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