Magazine article Church & State

Va. Military Institute Can't Sponsor Prayers, Says Appellate Court. (People & Events)

Magazine article Church & State

Va. Military Institute Can't Sponsor Prayers, Says Appellate Court. (People & Events)

Article excerpt

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. …

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