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Virginia Military Institute must discontinue dinner prayers

By The Associated Press

01.25.02

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LYNCHBURG, Va. — A federal judge ruled yesterday that saying grace before dinners at a state-supported military school is unconstitutional.

Lexington's Virginia Military Institute has been holding the prayer ceremonies since the 1950s. The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the school last May on behalf of two cadets, Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, who had complained about the prayers.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon called the ceremonies a "state-sponsored religious exercise."

"Because the prayers are drafted and recited at the direction of the Institute's Superintendent, the result is that government has become impermissibly entangled with religion," Moon wrote in a 36-page ruling.

Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore said he would appeal Moon's ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"It's a shame today that while American soldiers are fighting for our liberty in places like Afghanistan, cadets training to be soldiers cannot pray for their safety," Kilgore said at a news conference.

He said the prayer is part of a "militaristic ceremony" that is central to VMI's mission and thus is a matter of academic freedom.

Every night, cadets march into the mess hall in formation. Before they are served dinner, a member of the corps reads a non-denominational prayer.

A VMI spokeswoman said all school prayers would be discontinued as of last night. Maj. Gen. Josiah Bunting III, superintendent of VMI, was overseas and could not be reached for comment, spokeswoman Donna Weaver said.

Mellen, of Los Angeles, and Knick of Woodbridge, said they went to the ACLU after school officials refused to listen to their requests last spring to change the prayer ceremonies.

Mellen, 23, who will graduate in May, said several angry cadets had confronted him on campus since he brought the lawsuit.

"I hope that those who do value prayer realize that there is no end to prayer in the mess hall," Mellen said. "They can pray in their own personal way, which is better than the bland way that they're doing it now."

VMI, the last public military school for men in America, was founded in 1839, as a place where boys came to be molded into "citizen-soldiers." Women started attending the school in 1997.

Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU in Virginia, said the lawsuit was not meant to remove religion from the VMI campus.

"Every student should be allowed to practice the religion of his or her choice. In fact, it would be wrong for VMI to prevent individual or group religious practices that do not disrupt the school's educational process."

Update

Attorney: Virginia Military Institute prayer serves secular purpose
State asks 4th Circuit panel to overturn ruling barring college's daily dinner prayer, but ACLU argues practice is unconstitutional endorsement of religion.  01.23.03

Previous

Virginia defends military college's dinner prayers
State attorney tells federal judge cadets aren't required to pray or to stand reverently while others pray, but ACLU argues policy violates First Amendment.  12.18.01

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