ACLU asks Virginia Military Institute to Stop School-Sponsored Prayers

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
April 3, 2001 12:00 am

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RICHMOND, VA – After receiving several complaints from cadets at Virginia Military Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has asked the school to cease its practice of having a student chaplain lead the cadets in prayer prior to each evening meal.

According to information from several sources, the entire Virginia Military Institute (VMI) student body is required each evening to march to the campus mess hall for supper. After the group arrives, the cadet chaplain leads them in a prayer invoking God. Students are apparently not required to attend, but if they do not, they must forgo dinner.

“These prayers violate the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “As a state school, Virginia Military Institute cannot force students to be part of a religious exercise in order to have their dinner.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has found that when teachers lead students in prayer or appoint students to lead such prayers, not only does the state abandon its neutral position toward religion, but it also puts pressure on students to participate.

In a letter, dated February 28, to VMI Superintendent Major General Josiah Bunting, III, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg explained that the prayers at VMI create the same constitutional problems posed by school-sponsored religion in secondary public schools.

“Every evening, school authorities assemble a captive audience of young people and put them through a religious exercise,” said Glenberg. “At a place like VMI, where following the orders of superiors is de riguer and conformity is a virtue, there is tremendous pressure on students to participate.”

The ACLU received a response to its letter from VMI late yesterday indicating that the school does not intend to change it mealtime prayer routine.

“No one is saying the school shouldn’t allow each student to practice the religion of his or her choice–indeed, it would be wrong for the school to interfere with individual religious practices or freely-chosen group practices,” added Willis. “But the Constitution prohibits VMI from pressuring students to be part of a religious ceremony–and that is exactly what is happening here.”

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