RICHMOND A federal appeals court heard a case yesterday to restore prayer at the Virginia Military Institute.
The pre-dinner prayer has been a school tradition since the 1950s. 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 school appealed the case to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The three-judge panel is not expected to make a ruling for several months.
School administrators said during the 2002 trial that participating in the prayer is optional, but Judge Norman K. Moon ruled such a ritual at a state-sponsored school entangles government and religion.
On Tuesday, William Hurd, a commonwealth lawyer presenting the school, said that “hearing and participating are not the same thing.”
In response, Rebecca K. Glenberg of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the cadets, said the school is teaching prayer, and that violates the First Amendment.
“The wrong here is [my clients] were subjected to religion at a state school at the most basic level,” Miss Glenberg said.
Cadets Neil Mellen and Paul Knick acknowledge they did not have to participate in the prayer but said school administrators dismissed their concerns and other cadets cursed and threw napkins at them. The men graduated in May. Mr. Mellen is serving in the Peace Corps in Micronesia and Lt. Knick is serving at an Air Force base in Louisiana. They were unavailable yesterday for comment.
The appeal process was prompted by Attorney General Jerry H. Kilgore, who disagreed with Judge Moon’s ruling. Outside the courthouse yesterday, Mr. Kilgore said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the ruling would be overturned.
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.
The hourlong hearing yesterday focused mostly on what harm the cadets faced and whether they were required to be present when the prayer was being said.
Said Mr. Hurd: “The only thing they object to is not being able to eat without hearing the prayer, which we have demonstrated is not the case.”
Judge Morton I. Greenberg, a visiting judge from New Jersey, questioned Miss Glenberg on what constitutional violation occurred when the cadets were not required to attend.
“They are teaching cadets to pray [and] taking a position on a religious subject,” she said.
But Mr. Hurd argued the school’s primary goals are to prepare cadets for war and to make the school environment like those in the U.S. service academies. He also said the prayer was a ritual with secular purposes that should not be discontinued.
“Clearly once a day ought to be all right,” Mr. Hurd said. “Congress says its prayers once a day.”
Said Lt. Col. Chuck Steenburgh: “Prayer has a well-established place in military culture [that] ought not be outside what is constitutionally permissible. We simply do not believe that is what the founders had in mind when they adopted the First Amendment.”