In July of last year, all twelve judges of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond reviewed an earlier decision in the case rendered by three of it members. On a 6-6 vote, the judges of the full appellate court agreed with the three-judge panel -- and an earlier decision by a district court judge in Lynchburg-- that school-orchestrated mealtime prayers at the state-supported college violate separation of church and state.
“In our brief, we have pointed out to the Supreme Court justices that the lower courts in Virginia merely followed Supreme Court precedents in concluding that the official mealtime prayers at VMI are unconstitutional,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “There should be no need for them to review the case.”
The U.S. Supreme Court can reject the request for a review, leaving the prayer ban in place, or it can agree to hear the case and render its own decision.
Lawyers for the ACLU of Virginia represent two cadets at VMI who balked at the college’s practice of assembling students prior to dinner to listen to a prayer offered by the cadet chaplain. First-year students, or rats as they are called at VMI, are required to attend the pre-dinner religious ceremony. For upper class students, attendance is not mandatory, but the courts that have addressed this case all found that the school’s emphasis on conformity puts considerable pressure on them to be present as well.
In its ruling, the three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit noted that the U.S 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.
The plaintiffs in the case are Neil Mellen and Paul Knick, both of whom were seniors at VMI when the case began, and have since graduated. Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia, represents Mellen and Knick, with assistance from Jane S. Glenn and Brian R. Jones of Jones & Glenn in Roanoke.
Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Rebecca K. Glenberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022