- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

Gov. Mark Warner yesterday said he believes that Virginia Military Institute’s prayer-before-meal tradition does not violate the U.S. Constitution and should be allowed to continue.

“While I support the long-held principle of the separation of church and state, I am comfortable that the VMI prayer does not infringe on constitutional rights,” Mr. Warner told The Washington Times.

His announcement comes four days after Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore asked the full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to hear the case about supper-time prayers at the state-sponsored military school. A three-judge appeals panel ruled the prayer a constitutional violation two weeks ago.

It was not clear yesterday when the court would decide on Mr. Kilgore’s request.

“By arguably treating the mere hearing of prayer as tantamount to participating in it, the decision jeopardizes prayer in any governmental setting,” Mr. Kilgore wrote in a petition to the court.

“For example, in this Court — as in the Supreme Court — each session begins with a brief invocation. No one is required to close his eyes or bow her head. If hearing — or standing — is the same as participating, it is difficult to explain how these invocations could be constitutional.”

Mr. Warner agreed yesterday.

“The VMI prayer is nonsectarian, and participation is optional. It’s in keeping with what’s done in the service academies,” he said.

Today, Mr. Warner, a Democrat, is expected to give the commencement address at the 164-year-old military school.

Mr. Kilgore, a Republican, said Monday he fears the effects the appellate court decision — if it stands — could have on the U.S. military academies and on all levels of public education.

“It is not just the military colleges that will be affected,” Mr. Kilgore wrote. “By implicitly equating institutions of higher education with grades K-12, the panel opinion is written in terms so sweeping as to jeopardize the ability of any public college to include an invocation or benediction at any ceremony — including graduation ceremonies.”

The predinner prayer has been a school tradition since the 1950s. First-year cadets are required to hear the prayer before supper because they are the only ones required to attend dinner in the mess hall. They are not required to participate. Last year, however, two cadets — who have since graduated — sued the school, saying the prayer violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

“The wrong here is, [my clients] were subjected to religion at a state school at the most basic level,” Rebecca K. Glenberg, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing the cadets, said before the three-judge panel in January.

Cadets Neil Mellen and Paul Knick acknowledge they did not have to participate in the prayer. But they 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.

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