Sunday, January 27, 2002

ROANOKE A federal judge’s ruling against Virginia Military Institute’s traditional dinner prayers will further erode what once was a unique military education, some alumni say.
“Why would anybody go there now?” said Bob Munno, 42, a New York businessman who graduated from VMI in 1981.
Founded in 1839, VMI has long promoted itself as a place where teen-agers could be molded into citizen soldiers. The school, which forces first-year cadets to shave off their hair, walk in straight lines and turn at sharp angles, was a training ground for such military greats as Gen. George C. Marshall. Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson taught there.
The school prayer ceremony, which began in the 1950s and was discontinued Thursday, would begin before dinnertime as cadets marched into the mess hall. During the exercise, a member of the corps would read a non-denominational prayer that mentions God, but not Jesus Christ.
“It was nothing major,” Mr. Munno said. “Somebody would talk over the microphone, it would be garbled and nobody could understand him anyway.”
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Lexington school in May on behalf of two cadets who had complained about the prayer.
In his 36-page ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon agreed with Cadets Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, calling the ceremony a “religious exercise” sponsored by the state.
“Drafting a prayer to conform with generic, religious norms does not make that prayer secular,” Judge Moon wrote.
Attorney General Jerry Kilgore said he will appeal the judge’s decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The ruling left some alumni grumbling about how the courts have been dismantling what they consider key parts of VMI culture.
“I just fail to see how this causes a problem,” said Grover C. Outland III, 43, president of the Maryland chapter of VMI Alumni. “I guess now prayers at [Annapolis] need to be ditched. And how about military chaplins? How far should we take this?”
VMI, a school replete with traditions and ceremonies, has strongly resisted changes to its policies in the past. When other military schools started accepting women in the 1970s and 1980s, VMI continued to keep a male-only corps.
The U.S. Supreme Court forced the school to allow female cadets in 1996.

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