Supreme Court Lets Ban on Coerced Prayer at Virginia Military Institute Stand

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
April 26, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The U. S. Supreme Court today turned down a request by the Virginia Attorney General to review a federal appeals court decision banning mandatory mealtime prayers at the Virginia Military Institute. By refusing to hear the case, the High Court leaves in place a ruling that such prayers violate the separation of church and state.

“The federal courts in Virginia merely followed Supreme Court precedents in concluding that public colleges, like other public institutions, unconstitutionally endorse religion when they organize and sanction religious activities,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “There really was no need for the Supreme Court to review the case.”

Lawyers for the ACLU of Virginia represented two VMI cadets, Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, who objected to the college’s practice of assembling students for a prayer ceremony prior to each evening meal. All first-year students were required to attend the pre-dinner religious ceremony. Although upper-class students were not required to attend, the courts found that the school’s emphasis on conformity puts considerable pressure on them to be present as well. Any student who did not attend the prayer also had to forego dinner.

Last April, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the school-orchestrated prayers violated the First Amendment, which prohibits government from establishing religion. “The supper prayer has the primary effect of promoting religion, in that it sends the unequivocal message that VMI, as an institution, endorses the religious expressions embodied in the prayer,” the court wrote.

The appeals court noted that the Supreme Court has never directly addressed whether the Establishment Clause forbids state-sponsored prayer at a public college or university. However, the judges all agreed that the prayers at VMI are unconstitutional because they have the primary effect of endorsing religion and because student participation is coerced.

“This case reaffirms the important principle that state institutions may not endorse particular religious beliefs,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg, who represented Mellen and Knick with assistance from attorneys Jane S. Glenn and Brian R. Jones of Jones & Glenn in Roanoke.

Now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case, the panel opinion holding the prayers unconstitutional is the final word.

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