- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

ANNAPOLIS (AP) Mealtime prayer at the U.S. Naval Academy may cease after an appellate court rules on a case involving grace conducted before lunch at Virginia Military Institute.
Naval Academy officials say they have begun a review of the legality of its lunch prayers. Prayers before lunch have been a tradition at the academy for years, probably since the school opened 157 years ago.
But a federal judge ruled in January that saying grace before dinners at VMI was unconstitutional, citing a separation between church and state.
The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the school in May on behalf of two cadets who had complained about the prayers.
Mealtime prayers at VMI are similar to ones at the Naval Academy, said Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director for the ACLU's Virginia chapter. "First, the school is putting its official endorsement on religious belief," she said. "Second, students are required to be there."
Analysts said the Virginia case may set a precedent in case law covering religious practices at military schools and perhaps public colleges.
In 1972, the last legal case that involved military institutions, the Supreme Court allowed a lower court's decision that blocked academies from requiring students to attend chapel services.
"School officials should not be in the business of writing or uttering prayer" to a captive audience, says Ira C. Lupu, a First Amendment specialist at George Washington University.
About 4,000 midshipmen are required to be present at mealtime but do not have to take part in grace, academy officials say.
"It is made available as an option to minister to the spirit of the brigade," says Cmdr. Bill Spann, the academy's spokesman. "The chaplain says, 'Let us pray,' and you do if you want to and don't if you don't."
It was not immediately known when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond would rule on the case.


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