June 2003 Church & State | People & Events

A federal appeals court ruled April 28 that the Virginia Military Institute's practice of requiring prayers before supper is unconstitutional.

VMI, a publicly supported institution in Lexington, Va., dropped mealtime prayers in 1990, but director Gen. Josiah Bunting III reinstituted them in 1995, arguing that the prayers were traditional and would foster a spirit of unity among the cadets.

Some students disagreed. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, cadets Neil J. Mellen and Paul S. Knick challenged the prayers in court.

In its Mellen v. Bunting decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a public university cannot coerce student participation in religious practices. The practice, the judges said, violates the provision of the First Amendment that forbids government promotion of religion.

"Although we recognize and respect a cadet's individual desire to say grace before supper, the Establishment Clause prohibits VMI from sponsoring this religious practice," observed the court.

Elsewhere the court noted, "Here, VMI has composed, mandated, and monitored a daily prayer for its cadets. In this way, VMI has taken a position on what constitutes appropriate religious worship an entanglement with religious activity that is forbidden by the Establishment Clause."

The court also found Bunting's stated reasons for reinstituting the prayer to be suspect.

"In assessing General Bunting's asserted purposes for the supper prayer," the appellate panel observed, "we are concerned that he seeks to obscure the difference between educating VMI's cadets about religion, on the one hand, and forcing them to practice it, on the other. When a state-sponsored activity has an overtly religious character, courts have consistently rejected efforts to assert a secular purpose for that activity."

Americans United, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said the court made the right call.

"No Americans should be forced to sing for their supper or pray to get it either," said Barry W. Lynn, AU executive director. "The court found VMI to be illegally sponsoring prayers, which cadets felt coerced to attend. It's a sweeping decision that means public universities have no business promoting religion at meal times, bedtimes or any other times."

Lynn said the decision is an important step forward in law regarding religion in public schools.

"We've known for a long time that public secondary schools cannot sponsor prayer or other religious activities," Lynn said. "This court has now extended those religious liberty protections to public universities as well."

After the decision was handed down, newspapers reported that the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., sponsors prayers before lunch. Since Maryland is in the same appeals court circuit as Virginia, the ACLU asked officials at the Academy to review that policy and drop the official prayers.