June 2004 Church & State | People & Events

Virginia Military Institute has failed to persuade the Supreme Court to restore officially sponsored mealtime prayer at the school.

The justices announced April 26 that they will not hear an appeal of a lower court ruling striking down government-sanctioned prayers at VMI.

Officials at VMI, a publicly supported institution in Lexington, Va., dropped mealtime prayers in 1990 but reinstituted them five years later, saying the practice was a tradition that would foster unity among the cadets.

But two cadets, Neil J. Mellen and Paul S. Knick, disagreed and filed suit against the prayer policy In April of 2003, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Mellen and Knick and ruled that VMI may not sponsor coercive programs of religious worship.

The high court\'s refusal to hear the case angered two justices who often vote against church-state separation. Writing for himself and Chief Justice William H. Rehn­quist, Justice Antonin Scalia ac­cused the court of turning its back on VMI\'s traditions.

Scalia, alluding to a previous Su­preme Court ruling that forced VMI to admit women, wrote, "VMI has previously seen another of its traditions abolished by this Court. This time, however, its cause has been ignored rather than rejected – though the consequence will be just the same."

Americans United hailed the high court\'s move.

"The Constitution does not allow public schools to pressure students to pray, and this action is a reaffirmation of that important principle," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Decisions about when and how to pray should be made by Americans without interference from the government."

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the VMI case at the appeals court level. In the brief, AU attorneys argued that public institutions should not be permitted to coerce students to pray or take part in religious worship.

Lynn said the high court made the right move by declining to hear another appeal of the case.

"No one is brought to a deeper understanding of faith through coercion," said Lynn. "At VMI, students were literally being pressured to pray for their suppers. That just isn\'t right. Prayer must always be voluntary in order to be meaningful." (Bunting v. Mellen)