Court’s earlier decision striking down mealtime prayers at Virginia Military Institute stands

The full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals today decided not to revisit the VMI prayer case, leaving intact a decision striking down as unconstitutional the state college’s practice of pressuring students to attend religious ceremonies prior to evening meals.
The Court was divided, voting six for and six against to review the case. The tie vote allows the decision of a three-judge panel of the same court, issued in April, to stand as written.
Lawyers for the ACLU of Virginia have been representing two cadets at the Virginia Military Academy 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 court found that the school’s emphasis on conformity puts considerable pressure on them to be present as well.
In its April 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.
That ruling upheld a lower court decision from a federal judge in Lynchburg who also found the prayers to be unconstitutional.
"This was a close call, but we hope it ends here,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “We believe that the lower court judge and the appellate panel properly interpreted the principle of separation of church and state to mean that state colleges, much like secondary and primary public schools, cannot organize a religious exercise and force students to participate.”
The plaintiffs 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

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