- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

A federal appeals court in Richmond yesterday upheld a lower-court opinion that the Virginia Military Institute's tradition of school-led dinner prayers is unconstitutional.
"Put simply, VMI's supper prayer exacts an unconstitutional toll on the consciences of religious objectors," the opinion from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit stated. "While the First Amendment does not in any way prohibit VMI's cadets from praying before, during, or after supper, the Establishment Clause prohibits VMI from sponsoring such a religious activity."
A three-judge panel agreed the supper prayer is unconstitutional because cadets are more or less obligated to attend the evening gatherings.
"The supper prayer has the primary effect of promoting religion, in that it sends the unequivocal message that VMI, as an institution, endorses the religious expressions embodied in the prayer," the court opinion stated.
The 28-page opinion was written by Judge Robert B. King. Judge King was joined in the opinion by Senior Judge Clyde H. Hamilton and Senior Judge Morton I. Greenberg of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia.
Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore said in a statement he was "disappointed" by yesterday's ruling and will seek a review by the full 4th Circuit.
He argued that students were not required to recite the prayer, bow their heads, or even participate in the recitation.
"I continue to believe that the nondenominational, nonsectarian grace before supper is the sort of thing that is appropriate in a military setting," Mr. Kilgore said.
"These prayers were part of VMI's educational program and are precisely the sort of prayers recited in the United States military, on ships at sea each night, and before lunch at the United States Naval Academy."
The court said in a footnote to its opinion that it was not their task to address whether, or to what extent, the military can incorporate religious practices into its ceremonies.
"The Virginia General Assembly, not the Department of Defense, controls VMI," the footnote states.
Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington, has been holding the prayer ceremonies since the 1950s. The school was founded in 1839 and includes Gen. George S. Patton among its former students.
The supper call ritual has cadets march in formation to dinner, but only freshman are required to stay and hear the prayer. The other cadets can leave before eating dinner or wait outside until after the prayer has been said. The prayer was written by the school chaplain and changed daily.
Though discontinued several times since then, the school officially canceled the prayer last year after two cadets took the issue to trial and won.
The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the school in May 2001 on behalf of cadets Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, who complained about the prayers.
The men graduated in May 2002. Mr. Mellen is serving in the Peace Corps in Micronesia and Lt. Knick is serving at an Air Force base in Louisiana.
U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon ruled in January 2002 that the prayers were unconstitutional. That ruling was challenged by Mr. Kilgore.
Rebecca Glenberg, who argued the case for the Virginia ACLU, said she was "pleased" with the court's decision.
"What the court has done is to demonstrate that the First Amendment provision prohibiting government from establishing religion does not just apply to schoolchildren, as VMI had argued, but to college students and other adults as well."

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