High court won't hear case of banned prayers at military school

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said Monday it will not consider reinstating mealtime prayers at a state-funded military college, turning aside an appeal from officials who wanted to preserve the tradition.

Justice Antonin Scalia blasted his colleagues for refusing to hear the case, arguing that it raised important church-state and other questions. Leaving those issues unresolved is unfair to Virginia Military Institute, Scalia wrote in a dissent joined by fellow conservative Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

A lower federal court had found VMI's mealtime prayers violate the Constitution, and the high court's action means that ruling will stand.

VMI, part of the state university system in Virginia, lost a previous Supreme Court battle over its all-male admissions policy. The high court forced VMI to admit women in 1996, as Scalia noted dryly in his dissent Monday.

VMI's nightly prayers were recited by a student chaplain after cadets marched into the mess hall.

The prayers, one for each night of the week except Saturday, mentioned God but not Jesus or other religious figures. All the prayers concluded with the phrase, "Now, O God, we receive this food and share this meal together with thanksgiving. Amen."

The case arose when two cadets asked the school to change the prayer ceremony, and sued when VMI refused. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the students.

"As we've said all along, a state institution may not endorse particular religious beliefs, and that constitutional principle has been clearly established for a long time," said Rebecca Glenberg, legal director for the Virginia ACLU. "The Supreme Court apparently has recognized that that principle applies to VMI just as it does to any other state institution."

VMI's students were not required to recite the daily prayer, or even to listen to it, lawyers for the school had argued in asking the Supreme Court to intervene. Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore also argued that the ruling against VMI threatens prayers at other institutions, including the Pentagon and the Naval Academy.

The high court's "inaction on this issue creates a tear in the fabric of our country," Kilgore said in a statement Monday.

"It is disheartening that while American soldiers are fighting for our liberties in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, our young men and women training to be soldiers and leaders at VMI are prevented from praying for their safety as a body," he said.

Scalia did not go as far in his dissent Monday, but said that prayer at a military college is more likely to be constitutional than prayer at a nonmilitary one, "since group prayer before military mess is more traditional than group prayer at ordinary state colleges."

In his reply to Scalia, Justice John Paul Stevens said although the case raised important issues, it has significant procedural and other problems.

It takes the votes of four justices to agree to hear an appeal. The back-and-forth among the justice released Monday shows that, at most, Scalia and Rehnquist collected just one additional vote to hear the case.

The justices in the court's ideological middle, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy, did not reveal why they did not want to hear the case.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that VMI's suppertime prayers violated the principle of separation of church and state. In its ruling last year, a three-judge panel of appeals judges pointed to VMI's military culture of "obedience and conformity."

"In this context, VMI's cadets are plainly coerced into participating in a religious exercise," the appeals judges wrote.

The full Richmond-based appeals court later divided 6-6 over whether to reconsider the panel's ruling. The tie vote meant the panel's ruling stood.

The Supreme Court is already considering a major case about religion in schools. The justices are expected to rule by summer on whether the current wording of the Pledge of Allegiance, with its reference to "one nation under God" is constitutional in public schools.

The case is Bunting v. Mellen, 03-863.


On the Net:

Supreme Court order, including dissents:


Virginia Military Institute: http://www.vmi.edu

4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals: http://www.pacer.ca4.uscourts.gov

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