School-Sponsored Prayers at VA Military Institute Wrongly Entangle Government and Religion, Court Declares

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
January 24, 2002 12:00 am

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LYNCHBURG, VA–A federal court judge in Lynchburg ruled today that school-sponsored prayers at the Virginia Military Institute are unconstitutional because they allow government to “”become impermissibly entangled with religion.””

The ruling was hailed as a victory for religious liberty by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which represented two cadets who challenged the school’s practice of assembling students for a prayer ceremony prior to each evening meal.

In his ruling, Judge Norman K. Moon wrote: “Because of the intense, coercive environment created by the Institute’s adversarial method, under which students are instructed to ‘subordinate [their] own personal desires and well-being to the good of the whole unit,’ the primary effect of this practice has been to compel students to participate in a state-sponsored religious exercise. Finally, because the prayers are drafted and recited at the direction of the Institute’s Superintendent, the result is that government has become impermissibly entangled with religion.”

“”The right not to be pressured by the state to participate in a religious activity is just as important as the right of all persons to freely choose their own religion,” said Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “”The court reminded us of that important principle today.””

When VMI seniors Neil Mellen and Paul Knick came to the ACLU with their complaint, “”we hoped to resolve the matter short of litigation,” said Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director of the ACLU of Virginia, who argued the case before Judge Moon on December 13. “Unfortunately, neither the ACLU nor the students were able to convince VMI officials that they were violating the Constitution, and we had to take the case to court.”

Willis added that “”this was not an attempt by the ACLU or the students to remove religion from the VMI campus. Every student should be allowed to practice the religion of his or her choice.. In fact, it would be wrong for VMI to prevent individual or group religious practices that do not disrupt the school’s educational process. But the Constitution prohibits the state from pressuring anyone to participate in a religious ceremony, and that is exactly what was happening here.”

A copy of the ruling can be found online at (go to Mellen v. Bunting).

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