- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2003

The decision by a federal appeals court that found "supper prayer" at the Virginia Military Institute violated the Constitution may spell trouble for U.S. military academies, said interest groups who declared victory in the case.
"I really think the logic, the reasoning that the court used, should have an identical application in the military academies," said Rebecca Glenberg, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
"Sometimes it's hard to predict what the courts will do with military issues. They give a lot of deference to military officers as to how to command their troops and how to train people," she said yesterday.
Meanwhile, Maryland lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday dispatched a cautionary letter to Naval Academy officials in Annapolis. The officials said there would be no comment.
However, the three circuit judges said twice in their 28-page opinion that the VMI case has no bearing on such institutions as the Naval Academy, which appears to be the only federal U.S. military school still saying grace before meals.
"The court has not had the occasion to consider whether, or to what extent, the military may incorporate religious practices in its ceremonies," the court said, noting the Defense Department runs the Naval Academy and West Point, while schools such as VMI and The Citadel are state-supported universities.
A West Point spokeswoman said there is no record that mealtime prayer ever was done at the U.S. Military Academy.
VMI itself discontinued systematic meal prayer two years ago, after being sued, "almost a lifetime ago," VMI communications director Col. Ken White said yesterday.
Mealtime prayer at The Citadel, a state university in South Carolina, is led by cadet volunteers in a fashion that may be compatible with what the VMI court said was permitted.
Citadel spokeswoman Charlene Gunnells said the VMI opinion is being reviewed for any effect on The Citadel's practice of having cadets stand at attention before each meal in Howard Hall as student volunteers lead a prayer.
"Every effort is made to have a nondenominational prayer that won't offend anyone," she said.
"Most of the cadets want to pray," said regimental commander Richard Neikirk, the student who coordinates prayer volunteers.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said VMI's evening prayer is "composed, mandated and monitored" by school officials. The opinion issued Monday stopped short of a formal ruling on the point, and issued no injunction to block prayer at the school, issued no declaratory decree, and said the top school official was immune from a civil rights lawsuit.
"In establishing its supper prayer, VMI has done precisely what the First Amendment forbids," the court said.
Miss Glenberg said the main effect of the limited ruling is to serve notice to officials that future prayer policies may be unconstitutional and lift the protection from a lawsuit those officials normally enjoy.
The 4th Circuit judges said they "agree with the District Court" that the prayer is unconstitutional, but they dissolved the lower court decision because the cadets who sued already had graduated.
The judges ruled that Gen. Josiah Bunting III, the former VMI superintendent who initiated the daily prayer, has "qualified immunity" against a civil rights action the cadets filed.

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