- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The U.S. Naval Academy has no plans to banish the noon mealtime prayer for midshipmen, after the Air Force issued a policy this week that discourages prayers at some events but keeps the tradition at others.

“We’re going to continue our existing practices,” said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, a spokesman at the Academy in Annapolis. “We have no plans to change our existing practice.” Annapolis is the only service academy that sanctions a mealtime prayer.

The brief prayer time, honored by generations of midshipmen, unfolds this way:

The brigade of about 4,000 students gathers at noon at King Hall. They stand by their chairs for announcements and the welcoming of any guests. Then, one of the school’s six chaplains delivers a nondenominational prayer. Sometimes a moment of silence is observed instead.

“Those who want to participate may do so,” Cmdr. Gibbons said. “Those who do not wish to participate do not have to pray. But they are expected to remain respectful for those who do.”

No group has sued to force an end to the noon prayer at the Naval Academy, but a lawsuit was filed in Virginia. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2003 that Virginia Military Institute’s mealtime prayers were unconstitutional because they violated free speech.

The Naval Academy is holding its ground after the Air Force released guidelines this week that discourage public prayer at some official functions servicewide.

The policy directs chaplains to “respect the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs.”

The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs does not have mandatory prayers at mealtimes, but cadets observe 20 seconds of silence during which they can pray or reflect, a spokesman said.

The Air Force published the guidelines as a response to complaints that evangelical Christians carry too much influence at the academy. An Air Force task force concluded that faculty were perceived on campus to favor Christians over cadets of other faiths.

The policy does not ban public prayer altogether. It states, “Consistent with long-standing military tradition, a brief nonsectarian prayer may be included in non-routine military ceremonies or events of special importance, such as a change-of-command, promotion ceremonies or significant celebration, where the purpose of the prayer is to add a heightened sense of seriousness or solemnity, not to advance specific religious beliefs.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the Air Force policy, if successful, could be adopted for all the armed forces. It is not clear whether the policy would force the Naval Academy to end the noon prayer because the prayer is nondenominational and the Air Force policy does not ban such practices.

Lt. Col. Kent Cassella, spokesman at the U.S. Military Academy, said West Point policy is to permit nondenominational prayers and benedictions at special events, such as graduation ceremonies, banquets and the yearly cadet reception.

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