School-sponsored Prayers At Virginia Military Institute Held Unconstitutional

Americans United Lauds Decision Barring Public Universities From Compelling Students To Attend Religious Worship

A federal appeals court yesterday declared the Virginia Military Institute's practice of requiring prayers before supper unconstitutional. Americans United for Separation of Church and State hailed the unanimous decision, saying it protects freedom of conscience.

"No Americans should be forced to sing for their supper or pray to get it either," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "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."

VMI, a publicly supported institution in Lexington, Va., dropped mealtime prayers in 1990, but 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 compel 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."

Lynn, an attorney and a Christian minister, 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."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.