- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A chaplain will continue to say grace at the weekday lunches that all 4,000 Naval Academy midshipmen must attend, despite a series of federal court rulings striking down a nearly identical practice at another military institution.

Navy lawyers have reviewed the rulings by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviewed the practice at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., and concluded it violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The lawyers decided that the academy’s grace is legal, a Navy spokesman said.

The decision leaves the Naval Academy as the only U.S. service academy that routinely offers a prayer before meals. The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union immediately rebuked the decision, all but inviting midshipmen to sue the school.

“We tried things the nice way, and they’ve told us to pound sand,” said David Rocah, a staff lawyer for the civil liberties group.

“If someone is interested in challenging” the academy, Mr. Rocah said, “we’d be perfectly happy to talk to them about doing that.”

The Naval Academy had no comment. The Navy spokesman, Lt. Billy Ray Davis, said Friday that the Navy wouldn’t disclose the reasoning behind its conclusion that the appeals court rulings require no change at Annapolis.

“The Navy is committed to providing appropriate outlets consistent with the law for free exercise of religion by U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen,” Lt. Davis said. “We are committed to ensuring that our efforts to accommodate the free exercise of religion … are fully consistent with the law.” He said nonsectarian prayers, moments of silence or “devotional thoughts” are offered before most noon meals.

Some legal scholars have argued that the Naval Academy, as an arm of the military, has wider latitude to restrict First Amendment rights in the name of order than does a state college such as VMI.

The Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine academies, while requiring attendance at meals, offer just moments of silence beforehand. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point has neither grace nor a moment of silence.

This month, in response to the VMI rulings, The Citadel, a state military college in Charleston, S.C., replaced its cadet-led mealtime prayer with a moment of silence.

Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore has said he will appeal the 4th Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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