Saturday, October 4, 2003

Republicans on Capitol Hill are stepping into a battle over whether military schools should be allowed to include prayer as part of meals and other school-sponsored activities.

House conservatives are pushing a bill designed to ensure that military academies can have policies to include voluntary, nondenominational prayers during authorized activities, such as meals.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, aims to combat the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully sued the Virginia Military Institute because of its prayer-before-meal tradition, and has since notified the U.S. Naval Academy in a letter that its similar prayer policy must be changed.

“I find it incredibly ironic that liberal organizations like the ACLU are attempting to take away the very freedoms that these students are willing to go to war to protect,” Mr. Jones said when he introduced his bill last month.

Last week, Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican, and Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, pushed the proposal during their weekly issues briefing for conservative organizations.

“The principles of faith that guided our founders animate the lives of the men and women training to defend our nation. That tradition and heritage is in trouble,” Mr. Pitts said.

The measure is gaining support in the House, though no formal hearing or vote has been set yet, Jones spokeswoman Lanier Swann said. Mr. Jones, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, is also talking to interested senators about a possible companion bill in the Senate.

In May 2001, the Virginia chapter of the ACLU sued the Virginia Military Institute on behalf of two former cadets who opposed the pre-supper prayer. Two years later, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled in favor of the ACLU, arguing that the prayer violated the First Amendment.

Since then, the Maryland ACLU chapter has contacted the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, advising the school that it must change its policy of compulsory prayer before lunch, an ACLU official said, adding that it is “monitoring” the school, but no legal action has been taken.

Virginia ACLU spokeswoman Rebecca Glenberg said prayer becomes a problem when it is school-sponsored and compulsory for cadets, as she said it was at VMI.

The VMI pre-meal prayer has been a school tradition since the 1950s. First-year cadets are required to hear the prayer because they are the only ones required to attend dinner in the mess hall.

The Jones bill would apply specifically to the nation’s military academies — the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Naval Academy — because legally they could not apply it to other academies, Miss Swann said.

Miss Glenberg noted that since VMI is a state school, the bill would not affect that case. She did not know whether it could affect any possible action that may be taken against the Naval Academy.

Mr. Pitts and others say the bill, if passed, will, “protect the religious rights of our men and women within our military academies.”

“Our future officers have gained respect for God and country as they have moved through military academies,” Mr. Jones said. “Now one of those traditions, the act of community prayer before meals, during special events and other activities is under attack.”

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